Celebrating Setsubun

A bean-throwing ceremony to drive away evils during the annual Setsubun festival at Tokyo's Sensoji Temple.
A bean-throwing ceremony to drive away evils during the annual Setsubun festival at Tokyo’s Sensoji Temple.

Setsubun means roughly “division of seasons” and is celebrated the day before the first day of spring, according to the Japanese lunar calendar. In 2006, the celebration is on February 3. It marks the first day of the solar year, hence sometimes being referred to as New Year’s Eve. The holiday is associated with purification rites designed to throw the demons out and start the new year fresh and clean.

Bad luck and demons (“oni” are expelled through the ritual opening of doors and windows accompanied by tossing beans outside, a ritual known as Mame Maki. This is accompanied by the saying, “Fuku wa uchi! Oni wa soto!” (“fortune in and devils out”); some shout the inverse of this, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“devils out, happiness in”). This is a more pleasant approach than the original ritual of burning sardine heads and playing loud drums. Some households do continue to hang fish heads and holly outside to ward off any wandering demons. Roasted soybeans are spread on the cleaned floors inside and are consumed — each person eats the number of beans that corresponds to his or her age. Similar public ceremonies are also held.

Another ritual associated with Setsubun involves eating an entire nori maki sushi roll, sometimes while facing a lucky direction. Eating the full roll brings luck, good health, and long life.

While dated back to the earliest days of the solar calendar and Chinese custom, Setsubun and its rites were formalized during the Muromachi Period (approximately 1333 – 1592; different sources give different dates). The date falls at the end of Daikan (severe cold) and beginning of Risshun(spring begins). Risshun is the first period of the solar year — the source of the New Year’s Eve concept.