We’ve almost reached my favourite event in the Japanese Calendar. It’s not quite as spooky as Namahage or as integral to the Japanese family as Obori, but I can’t help but love this quirky, wholesome festival.
In very early February Japan will be celebrating Setsubun, an event which goes way back to the Muromachi period of the country’s history, roughly between the thirteenth and fifteenth century. The date marks the passing from winter to the first day of spring, and the name itself literally means ‘division of seasons’. Hopes for luck, happiness, peace and successful harvests have traditionally been tied into the festival.
The way these themes are actually celebrated draws on both Japanese myths and a pretty generous helping of fun. Perhaps you’re an avid watcher of shows like Demon Slayer, or maybe you even read our article on monsters? If so, you might already be familiar with the Oni who make an appearance for this festival.
The bulky, brightly coloured demons are often thought of being mischievous and rather villainous. During a part of Setsubun known as Mamemaki, Oni are chased from the home using a rather unusual technique. The demons are brought to life by a disguised father or eldest son, then pelted with lucky roasted soybeans by the rest of the family as they chant ‘Oni ha soto, fuku ha uchi!’ (Bad luck out, good luck in!).
Chasing away the monstrous Oni is effectively a way of chasing out bad luck, and ensuring good luck will be following you as the new season rolls in. During Mamemaki soy beans might also be thrown outside the door, or eaten, since eating the number of beans equal to your age plus one is another way to net some good fortune.
You may well be curious as to why soy beans are thought to help purify the family home, or why an unfortunate member of the family takes on the role of bean target each year.
In addition to traditionally being symbols of luck, the process of boiling the hardy bean may represent the tough process of ridding yourself of demons. There’s also the idea that mame (the Japanese word for bean) sounds like mamestu (destroy evil).
Proceedings this year have been affected by the corona virus, but the most unusual change is a quirk of the calendar. To account for the remaining time on the traditional calendar Setsubun has been pulled back to February 3rd to the 2nd, something which hasn’t happened for 124 years.
Plenty of temples take part in the festivities, ordering huge amounts of beans and preparing some dramatic Oni costumes. Some areas have their own mini changes. In Tokyo, Asakusa Shrine feels the chant is unnecessary since they’re already protected by the Goddess Kannon, and Kanda Shrine fires some ritual arrows to ward off evil.
Part of reason I like this festival is how accessible it though, and as long as children have been equipped with beans and someone to throw them at, hopefully this festival won’t be too diminished by the current difficulties with crowding.
Image Source: Wikicommons