The seasons are changing. It’s time to clean out all the bad energy from the biting cold winter and welcome Japan’s undoubtedly favorite season, spring.
…the idea is to use soybeans to symbolize purifying the home from evil spirits and misfortune lingering from the previous year.
But before everyone goes manic over cherry blossoms, Japanese families nationwide celebrate a unique tradition called Setsubun (節分) which is held a day before the start of spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar. In 2020, it falls on Feb. 3.
The kanji for Setsubun literally translates to “seasonal division,” an appropriate, if a bit on the nose, nomenclature. While the tradition is for everyone, it’s a particular favorite among Japanese children.
Exorcise your demons by throwing beans
To celebrate Setsubun, families put roasted soybeans in an asakemasu. That’s the wooden box that you sometimes see sake served in. Family and regional traditions diverge regarding what comes next.
Typically, the head of the household throws these beans outside the front door, chanting the Setsubun mantra, “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” (demons get out, good luck come in). Sometimes this role is instead given to a male in the house whose Chinese zodiac animal matches that year’s zodiac. In other families, the father dresses like an oni (demon) and the children throw beans at him while yelling, “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!”
This bean-throwing tradition is called mamemaki, literally “the scattering of beans.” No matter the household’s particular way of doing mamemaki, the idea is to use these soybeans to symbolize purifying the home from evil spirits and misfortune lingering from the previous year.
To ensure good luck in the new year, the family also eats one roasted soybean for each year of their life (and sometimes one extra bean for the new year, again depending on the region).
In modern days, it’s more common for local shrines to hold mamemaki events—likely because Setsubun isn’t a public holiday. It’s also a popular holiday activity at many elementary schools and kindergartens.
What in the world do soybeans have to do with banishing demons?
According to Japanese folklore, beans are considered to be symbols of good luck. Soybeans are the second favorite (after rice, of course) in the Shinto tradition. Since soybeans are bigger and slightly more intimidating than rice, they became a favorite in the Setsubun tradition to ward off demons.
Soybeans aren’t the only type of food associated with Setsubun. Another one that has become quite popular in recent years is ehomaki (恵方巻) which translates to “lucky direction sushi roll.”
Traditionally, everyone holds one of these lucky sushi rolls and faces the eho, or “lucky direction” decided for the year then eats the whole roll in silence. Doing this supposedly brings good luck to the sushi roll eater for the new lunar calendar year. The lucky direction for 2020 is west-southwest.
Our favorite part is honestly after Setsubun is over and all the delicious supermarket ehomaki are on sale for a discounted price.
Setsubun celebrations around Tokyo
Here are some of the most popular Setsubun celebrations around the nation’s capital for you to exorcise your demons.
Sensō-ji in Asakusa, Tokyo
At Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple in Asakusa, rather than saying “demons get out,” they say 千秋万歳福は内 or senshu banzei fuku wa uchi which is basically a prayer for eternal good luck. Celebrities also join the festivities and throw soybeans out to the crowds, so you might see some famous people you recognize there.
Tokyo Tower in Minato, Tokyo
Tokyo Tower is nice at any time of year, but the popular tourist spot gets extra festive during Setsubun. Drop by the second floor of their main deck to throw beans at some oni and meet Tokyo Tower’s own original mascots who will also make an appearance for the Setsubun festivities.
Kijin Shrine in Ranzan, Saitama
At Kijin Shrine, demons are worshipped as gods, so naturally, they wouldn’t want to drive them out, even for Setsubun! Instead of chanting “demons get out,” they mix it up a bit by saying, “Good luck come in, demons come in, bad spirits get out!” (福は内、鬼は内、悪魔は外, fuku wa uchi, oni wa uchi, akuma wa soto).