Setsubun (節分) is the day before the beginning of spring in the old calendar in Japan. The name literally means ‘seasonal division‘, referring to the day just before the first day of spring in the traditional calendar, known as Setsubun; though previously referring to a wider range of possible dates, Setsubun is now typically held on February 3 (in 2021 it was on 2nd February), with the day after – the first day of spring in the old calendar – known as Risshun (立春). Both Setsubun and Risshun are celebrated yearly as part of the Spring Festival (Haru matsuri (春祭)) in Japan. In its association with the Lunar New Year, Setsubun, though not the official New Year, was thought of as similar in its ritual and cultural associations of ‘cleansing’ the previous year as the beginning of the new season of spring. Setsubun was accompanied by a number of rituals and traditions held at various levels to drive away the previous year’s bad fortunes and evil spirits for the year to come.
Setsubun has its origins in tsuina (追儺), a Chinese custom introduced to Japan in the 8th century. Although originally practiced as part of an individual household’s traditions for preparing for the first season of the new year, Setsubun is now mostly observed at various Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and geisha communities.
The main ritual associated with the observance of Setsubun is mamemaki (豆撒き, “bean scattering”); this ritual sees roasted soybeans (known as fukumame (福豆, “fortune beans”)) either thrown out of the front door, or at a member of the family wearing an oni (demon or ogre) mask while shouting “Devils out! Fortune in!” (鬼は外! 福は内!, Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!), before slamming the door. The beans are thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away the evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health with them. Then, as part of bringing luck in, it is customary to eat roasted soybeans, one for each year of one’s life (kazoedoshi), plus one more for bringing good luck for the year.
The custom of mamemaki first appeared in the Muromachi period, and is usually performed by either a man of the household born in the corresponding zodiac year for the new year (toshiotoko (年男)), or else the male head of the household.
Though still a somewhat common practice in households, many people will also or instead attend a shrine or temple’s spring festival, where the practice of mamemaki is performed; in some areas, such as Kyoto, this involves a dance performed by apprentice geisha, after which the apprentices themselves throw packets of roasted soybeans to the crowds. In other areas, priests and invited guests throw packets of roasted soybeans, some wrapped in gold or silver foil, small envelopes with money, sweets, candies and other prizes. In some bigger and more central shrines, celebrities and sumo wrestlers are invited to celebrations, usually to Setsubun events that are televised. At Sensō-ji in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo, crowds of nearly 100,000 people attend the annual festivities.
A number of other, in some cases more esoteric practices exist surrounding the celebration and observance of Setsubun; some are regional, such as the Kansai area tradition of eating uncut makizushi rolls, known as ehō-maki (恵方巻, “lucky direction roll”), in silence whilst facing the year’s lucky compass direction as determined by the zodiac symbol of that year. Though the custom originated in Osaka, it has since spread, due largely to marketing efforts by grocery and convenience stores. Ehō-maki rolls are more commonly available for purchase at stores in the Kanto area during the spring period, with the tradition itself becoming more recognized as part of Setsubun. Charts are published and occasionally packaged with uncut makizushi during February.
Other practices include the putting up of small decorations of sardine heads and holly leaves (hiiragi iwashi (柊鰯)) at the entrance to a house to ward off evil spirits. A special variety of sake known as shōgazake (生姜酒) brewed with ginger is also customarily drunk on Setsubun.
The new year was felt to be a time when the spirit world became close to the physical world, thus the need to perform mamemaki to drive away any wandering spirits that might happen too close to one’s home. Other customs during this time included religious dances, festivals, and bringing tools inside the house that might normally be left outside, to prevent the spirits from harming them. Rice cakes were also balanced on lintels and windowsills, and tools normally left outside were brought indoors for safekeeping.
Because Setsubun was considered to be a day set apart from the rest of the year, a tradition of role reversal in appearance and dress was also practiced; such customs included girls wearing the hairstyles of older women and vice versa, wearing disguises, and cross-dressing. This custom is still practiced among geisha and their clients when entertaining on Setsubun.
Traveling entertainers (旅芸人, tabi geinin), who were normally shunned during the year because they were considered vagrants, were welcomed on Setsubun to perform morality plays. Their vagrancy worked to their advantage in these cases, as they were considered to take evil spirits with them.
In the Tōhoku area of Japan, the head of the household (traditionally the father) would take roasted beans in his hand, pray at the family shrine, and then toss the sanctified beans out the door. Peanuts (either raw or coated in a sweet, crunchy batter) are sometimes used in place of soybeans.
There is many variations on the famous “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” chant. For example, in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, people chant Oni no medama buttsubuse! (“鬼の目玉ぶっつぶせ！”, “Blind the demons’ eyes!”)
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia