Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Today (Feb. 3rd) is Setsubun in Japan. Setsubun, which literally means “seasonal division,” marks the start of the New Year as well as the beginning of spring (Feb 4th) in Japan according to the old lunar calendar. On Setsubun, Japanese families prepare for spring by cleaning their homes and then by performing a ritual known as Mamemaki in which the oldest male will throw a handful of soybeans outside their front door while shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” a phrase which means “Oni out, happiness in!” or “Oni out, luck in!” Afterwards the family will eat some soybeans, one for each year of their life.

In Japanese mythology and folklore Oni are troll-like demons who often serve the role of the generic villain opposed to the hero, much like giants or dragons do in western myths and legends. On Setsubun the Oni function as a symbol for evil and misfortune which may afflict people in the coming year. Since the 13th-Century tradition has held that Oni can be expelled or driven away by soybeans, which is why they are scattered outside the front door at the beginning of the year.

Prior to the 13th-Century it was custom for families to keep Oni away by making a ritual bonfire outside their homes in which they would smoke dried sardine heads and bang on drums. Others would also decorate a sacred tree with sardine heads, cloves of garlic, or onions. It is thought that after this ritual became too impractical (and possibly too annoying) that the bean-throwing ritual replaced it.

Why soybeans were chosen is a bit of a mystery. Some scholars trace the choice of bean back to a traditional No Comedy play performed at Mibu Temple in Kyoto in which an old woman attempts to steal a beautiful kimono and a magic hammer from an Oni. The Oni catches the old woman, however, and in order to escape the woman throws soybeans at him. Other think the choice was a result of soybeans being cheap and easily obtainable.

Despite not being an official national holiday Setsubun in celebrated all over Japan and everyone from Shinto priests to Buddhist monks to pop-culture celebrities get in on the celebration.

At Top: Celebrities celebrate Setsubun at Ikuta Shrine, Kobe.

Sources: Get Out Ogre! Come In Happiness! Setsubun in Japan; A Lunar "New Years' Eve" (Revised Jan. 2009) by Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara, Setsubun at japan-guide.com, and Oni at http://www.obakemono.com/

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