Setsubun: Out with the Old, in with the Ogres

Culture Avatar photo Ari Gorney

G'Day Japan! / Culture / Setsubun: Out with the Old, in with the Ogres

An aspect of Japan that I absolutely love is that there are very distinct seasons. Unlike Australia, where you could have winter and summer on the same day, Japan has four well defined seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. It is refreshing to see a change of season almost in an instant, from one day to another. The term Setsubun (節分, “seasonal division”) originally referred to the days marking the change from one season to the next, so there were four of them in years past. However, today, only the day before risshun (立春, the beginning of spring in the traditional Japanese calendar) is called by that name. Setsubun is celebrated on February 3 to mark the first day of spring that lands on February 4. The holiday is a chance to banish evil spirits from your home and bring in good luck for the year ahead and may be one of the most fun among Japan’s rich culture of festivals and rituals than happen throughout the year.

The tradition of Setsubun dates back centuries. Before switching to the Gregorian calendar in the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan’s annual rituals were closely based on the Chinese calendar. Setsubun fell around the time of the lunar New Year and was originally part of the New Year’s celebrations. Setsubun was introduced to Japan as Tsuina by the Chinese in the 8th century. “Tsuina” is a ceremony to drive out evil spirits. A ritual of purification to exorcise oni (ogres) or evil spirits. As a result, on this Setsubun day, various events and activities have been traditionally performed for the purpose of purging evil spirits in the lead up to the change of seasons.

One of the most popular activities is the Mame maki (豆撒き), or a Bean-throwing ceremony. Bean throwing traditions first emerged in the Muromachi period (1337 – 1573). The beans represent vitality and are thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health. As Japanese people like to play with words, there is also a secret meaning to bean throwing: the pronunciation of the word beans (mame, 豆) is like the word for demon eyes (魔目); throwing beans, therefore, has a similar sound to destroying demons (mametsu, 魔滅).

On the night of Setsubun, many households do mame-maki. They fill a masu (升, a wooden measuring cup) with roasted soybeans and throw the beans all about the room, shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” meaning “Out with the goblins and in with fortune!” They also open the windows and throw the beans outside. At schools in Japan, students typically make oni masks as a fun activity to do in their homeroom. The principal of the school or the teachers might dress up as oni demons, and children will throw roasted soybeans at them. After the bean-throwing ritual (mamemaki), people count out and eat the number of roasted soybeans equal to their age plus one more to protect them in the year ahead. These beans are called fuku-mame (福豆, good fortune beans).

Since Setsubun is not a national holiday, not all the Japanese take the time to celebrate it elaborately at home. However, there are mass celebrations of this event in certain parts of Japan. There are some temples that invite temple goers, visitors, and tourists to join in their massive bean throwing ritual. People are scattered all over the temple grounds and shall throw away the beans simultaneously.

Of course, every great holiday has some great food associated with it, and Setsubun is no exception.  One of the most popular dishes are Eho-maki (恵方巻) which are sushi rolls that are traditionally eaten during Setsubun to bring good fortune. It is very common to go to your local コンビニ(Convivence Store), and see rows of different flavours Eho-maki on sale.  It is related to the Seven Deities of Good Fortune called Shichifukujin (七福神), where seven fillings are traditionally rolled in a sushi roll. For example, simmered shiitake mushrooms and kanpyo (dried gourd), cucumber, rolled omelet (tamagoyaki), eels, sakura denbu (sweet fish powder), and seasoned koyadofu (freeze-dried tofu) are used. These ingredients represent good health, happiness, and prosperity, plus rolling the fillings means good fortune. When eating Ehomaki, you must face a particular “Eho” or the lucky direction of the year, which changes every year according to a five-year cycle. The 2021 lucky direction is “south-south-east”. When the lucky direction is set, you are supposed to make a wish, eat the Ehomaki in one go and in complete silence.

Humorously, in 2017, Subway Japan had a campaign where they were selling a “Eho-Sub”, a sandwich that looks like Ehomaki, for a limited time too.  It is a foot-long sandwich with a slightly cheaper price.

Roasted soybeans are customary on Setsubun, so you can find them sold everywhere from supermarkets to convenience stores to street stalls. They have a sweet, nutty flavor with a satisfying crunch, perfect for throwing at demons or popping into your mouth.

Japan is full of tradition and Setsubun represents an important period in the calendar to bring in good fortune and good luck for the New Year, as well as welcoming the spring in our lives. Therefore, it has a deep meaning for the Japanese people. Have you ever participated in a Setsubun celebration? If you are in Japan during Setsubun, you should try ehomaki and participate in bean scattering at the shrines and temples’ spring festival. Or you can bring it to your home, and have a fun activity of mask making and bean throwing while you dress up as an ogre! Either way, we hope it brings you good fortune and good luck for the New Year.