What is the Setsubun festival?
The setsubun is also called the Bean-throwing festival because it is the ceremonial act of throwing beans out of homes in the belief that it will ward off evil spirits. It is also known formally as the Risshun and it is celebrated every year in almost all establishments and households in Japan.
What is special about the setsubun is that it is an important annual marker of the Lunar New Year. During the earlier times, the setsubun served like the Lunar New Year’s Eve. As such, it is important for households and businesses to ward off or drive away bad luck, evil spirits, and all bad omen from any living quarter.
For every start of the year, the Japanese people wish that good fortune, health, and luck will come their way and keep them going for the rest of the year. The presence of evil inside the home can negate all this good fortune and so, it is a must that they ward off anything that can counter such blessings to enter the home.
Also, the setsubun is celebrated on the first day of spring, a sign that new life and new beginnings are about to enter their daily lives. The setsubun is a way of purifying the home and giving space for new beginnings to come.
The History of Setsubun in Japan
The setsubun is a simple celebration of shooing away bad spirits in homes, offices, schools, and the like. It is a traditional custom which has been celebrated in Japan for centuries. However, other than the bean throwing customs, the Setsubun means so much more for the Japanese.
The word Setsubun literally means seasonal division as the festival is celebrated on the first day of spring. For the Japanese, the marks of the seasonal changes are important especially during the earlier times when calendars were not yet fixed and all depended on the behavior of the moon’s phases.
These seasonal change markers are important for households, most especially for their livelihood. This is how the farmers note their time of harvest and it is also through this that families know when to change their daily ways of life. For instance, this is an important sign for them to note when to change clothing when to start preserving food for winter when to let out mats and mattresses to dry in the sun, and the like.
The setsubun is one of the important markers because it is a sign of seasonal change. It is a sign that the temperatures will start to rise, the snow will thaw to give way to blossoms, and the land will soon be ready for planting.
The Mamemaki and the Setsubun Mask
The word mamemaki literally means scattering of beans and the ceremony is done such as its name. This is the act of throwing roasted soybeans out of a home (this is the proper direction) while shouting “Demons out, luck in!”. It is the most important ritual during the setsubun celebrations.
Traditionally, the face of evil in Japan’s culture was an ogre or the oni. These are images which are depicted with horns, sharp fangs, dark red scaly skin, and large eyes. These are images that seem like a cross between a lion and a dragon, a terrifying combination, especially for young children. An ogre was a symbol of evil in a home. It is a sign of bad luck and bad omen. It is believed to bring diseases to the members of the family.
The great news is that the setsubun shall save the family from harm. Soy beans are known to be fortune beans are believed to negate the bad energy coming from the demon. It is believed, according to local legends, that the only way to drive away these demons is through the use of dried, roasted soy beans. If these beans are thrown at these demons, they are sure to be driven away.
Since ogres are imaginary beings and this image is only a depiction of what they believe beasts are, the setsubun becomes more like a short story. A family member shall wear an oni mask and the other members of the family shall obligingly throw roasted soy beans at this “ogre”. For those who do not prefer such antics, these people simply throw roasted soy beans out of their main entrances.
This act is said to be similar to throwing rice at newlywed couples. Since a wedding is a sign of a new beginning or a new chapter in life, it is similar to welcoming a new year. Throwing rice at newlywed couples is a way to ward off negative energies, bad omens, and a way to wish them good fortune, health, and luck. It is a way to purify their newly formed bond.
The Role of the Soy Bean
Soy beans are believed to be fortune beans in Japan, they are believed to have the powers to drive away evil and welcome good fortune. What is interesting is that the sales of soy beans at this time of the year rises up at an impressive percentage. This is why grocery stores usually stock up on soy beans and other soy products at significant amounts during the setsubun time.
This particular produce plays an important role in the culture of the Japanese. A lot of their delicacies are based on soy products like tofu and soya milk. One of the most important oriental seasonings in the world is also made from soy (soy sauce). A lot of locals also enjoy simple soy bean stews on a daily basis.
Setsubun Festival Date: When is it celebrated?
What is interesting about the Setsubun is that it is traditionally celebrated at the beginning of spring which is dictated by the lunar calendar. However, in the recent decades, it has been decided that it must be celebrated on the 3rd of February of every year. In other parts of Japan, it is celebrated on the 4th of February.
Unlike other celebrations like the New Year and Obon, the Setsubun is not a national holiday. This means that students will be in school and workers will be in their offices. This is why most of the time, it only involves a small celebration at work, at home, or in school.
Setsubun 2017 Japan: How is the Setsubun celebrated?
In schools, the setsubun is a fun activity for young children. Teachers opt to perform story-telling activities about the oni or ogres, what they are and how evil they can be. The teachers can also teach young students about the value of soy beans in the daily lives of the Japanese and its symbolic importance to the Japanese culture. Students can also enjoy creating their very own oni masks, which is a fun activity that will enhance their creativity.
In offices, this is a fun experience to exchange meal or delicacies which are made from soy beans and soy products. These are known to be lucky setsubun meals. This is an enriching activity that can be done after the mamemaki rituals.
However, it is best to celebrate the setsubun with family at home or have a visit to the nearest Shinto shrine for worship and prayer. It is a good way to pray for health and luck not only for one’s self but also for their family and friends.
There are different ways of celebrating setsubun and it varies depending on the region in Japan being considered. There are places where role reversals are common, especially during the earlier times. young girls are to present themselves to older women, some men prefer dressing like women, and vice versa. This is the entertaining aspect of the setsubun but is less common in the modern times.
There are also some places in Japan where they bring all harmful objects out of the house in the fear that the evil spirits will harm them in the bean throwing process. It is believed to keep them safe. There are also places in Japan that use peanuts in place of soy beans. Sometimes, instead of throwing the beans, the head of the family will keep it in his hands and pray in the shrines.
Lucky Setsubun Food
Just like other matsuri or festival in Japan, there are meals that are usually served to the family. For instance, fortune meals are served during the New Year and lotus shaped sweets are served during Obon. During the setsubun celebration, the lucky setsubun meal is served to the family.
This meal consists of soybeans cooked with rice known as the mame gohan. This is sticky rice which has been seasoned with roasted soy beans. Together with this, grilled sardines and stewed beans are served. The presence of beans, particularly soy beans, are believed to bring the family good fortune. It is a simple meal which could be easily made and served for the family. There is nothing too fancy about it. It is also believed that eating the same amount of beans as a person’s age will bring in good fortune, wealth, and health.
Another type of food which is served during the setsubun celebration would be the ehoumaki or the lucky long sushi roll. The word ehou literally translates to the lucky direction and this long sushi must be eaten at the year’s lucky direction.
Each ehoumaki must be made from seven ingredients and it should be made to the length of the seaweed sheet. What is important when eating the ehoumaki is that it must be uncut, else luck might be completely cut off as well. The custom of eating ehoumaki is actually a modern tradition.
How to celebrate Setsubun Sai as a foreign traveler?
A lot of persons travel to Japan just to have a first-hand experience of the culture. The best way to learn about the culture of Japan is through joining the different matsuri or celebrations. Those persons who travel to the country side, or outside big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto can have much richer and unique experiences of these festivals or matsuri.
There are different ways that the Japanese celebrate the setsubun and seeing it up close is an unforgettable experience. Perhaps joining mask making activities can be a culturally enriching activity for foreign travelers. This way, they can get a clearer glimpse of what an oni should look like.
There are also certain parts of Japan that celebrate setsubun with dances, parades, and temple rituals. Finding these places might be a good idea to have a personal experience of the setsubun. Maybe joining in with local families in making setsubun celebration food is also a fun and enriching activity.
Since the 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.
Other Setsubun-like festivals in the world
This is a Croatian celebration of scaring away evil spirits from homes. What makes this festivity similar to the setsubun is that it is done at the first day of spring as well. On top of that, they are warding off a creature in the form of a beast, in their case a wolf-like creature that symbolizes evil and demons. It is believed that the winter season brings about evil spirits and to shoo them away when spring comes is best to keep the home safe. However, instead of using beans they use deafening sounds and noise to ward off bad spirits.
Feast of the Lemures
This celebration is very similar to that of the setsubun in Japan. Although it is called a different name, the Feast of the Lemures is an ancient Roman tradition of exorcizing evil spirits, ghost, and the like from homes. What is interesting is that offerings of beans to these spirits are believed to satiate their unrest. Also, it is common practice to prepare flour cakes from the first ears of wheat of that harvest.