Japanese Traditions: Setsubun 節分 2011

Do you know what today is? Well…yes…it is February third, but here in Japan, February 3rd is Setsubun! Setsubun is a special day that marks the end of winter in Japan. Also know as “Bean Throwing Day” or the “Bean Throwing Festival,” one of the customs characteristic of this day is taking roasted soybeans beans, Setsubun mame (せつぶんまめ, 節分豆) and throwing them out of a window (in our case)** while saying “Fukuwa uchi. Oniwa soto,” (“ふくはうち、おにはそと,” “福は内鬼は外”). The English translation for these two phrases is “Good luck in,” “Bad spirits/Devils out.” You’re then supposed to eat your age in beans: if you’re 25 like me…you’ll eat twenty-five beans. Inner voice: “But Donald aren’t you thirt…” THUD! Inner voice:”…” Inner Voice:”…” Um…yeah.

**There are also ceremonies for kids where children have to throw setsubun mame at adults dressed in oni costumes. I’ve seen some of these ceremonies on Japanese television, and the poor kids are usually mortified, young infants who are crying while thowing beans at these demons (with people underneath).**

Although we didn’t do it this year, because she was out of the office, last year my manager, Tomomi Sensei brought beans, and during our morning meeting before classes, we did a brief Setsubun ceremony. Each teacher had to go to the window, say the magic words “Fukuwa uchi, oniwa soto,” and toss beans out of the office window. Don’t worry, we weren’t throwing beans on people, we were tossing them into the terrace greenery just outside the window. I appreciate Tomoi Sensei for always doing cool things like that…it’s one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about working here at AEON.

Another custom that people follow during Setsubun is to eat ehoumaki, (えほうまき, 恵方巻き). In short, Ehoumaki is a long sushi roll. From what my students tell me, eating ehoumaki was originally a custom that was exclusive to west Japan an it wasn’t until recently that people in Eastern regions of Japan (i.e.-here in the Kanto region) started adopting this practice. I have heard from several students that you’re supposed to eat ehoumaki while facing in an agreed upon direction (north, south, east…). If we take a look at the kanji, though, it fits. The first kanji 恵方 (ehou) means favorable or lucky direction, while 巻き (maki) means to coil or roll. So it’s like saying lucky direction roll…neat. Allegedly this was a marketing ploy by sushi makers to sell more ehoumaki during setsubun, but I’m not sure about that.

What exactly is the point of all these rituals? I asked the same question. Some students honestly didn’t know exactly why people ate their age in beans, or at long rolls of sushi, but in essence I think these customs are supposed to bring you good luck. I’m wasn’t sure if it just meant you’d be lucky for the spring, or for the rest of the year. But one person that I talked to actually told me that according to the ancient, Japanese calendar, Setsubun was the start of the new year, which would make a lot more sense. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s definitely something else I’ll have to look into.

Spring is here!

Donald Ash

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