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The celebration of Setsubun is a huge event in Japan that denotes the beginning of spring. In this article, we will cover the history of Setsubun, its purpose, when it is celebrated, and traditions. Mamemaki and Ehomaki are classic for Setsubun, but what’s it all about?
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After the New Year celebrations end, with the end of January approaching, Konbinis and supermarkets start hanging posters advertising advanced bookings for Ehomaki, shelves are stocked with beans, and Oni decorations and masks are set up. These are all the signs that Setsubun is coming.
The literal meaning of Setsubun (節分) is seasonal division. This is quite appropriate because Setsubun is celebrated to welcome the start of a new season that begins with spring. It is a huge cause of celebration, kind of like celebrating the New Years.
Setsubun is celebrated the day before Risshun (立春), the first day of spring. Since Risshun usually falls on 4th of February, Setsubun has almost always been celebrated on the 3rd of February. Indeed, Setsubun has been celebrated every 3rd February for at least 20 years. At least until 2021, when the streak was broken with Risshun falling on 3rd February and therefore Setsubun being celebrated on the 2nd.
※ Japan Society, "Setsubun" ※ BBC, Religions, "Haru Matsuri (Spring festivals)"
Did you know that Setsubun’s origins can be traced back to China?
It wasn’t till early Heian Period of the 8th century that the practice of Setsubun was brought to Japan along with Buddhism. In fact, the act of cleansing one’s house from bad luck and demons was originally done during the New Year’s before being separated into an altogether different event. Even the act of Mamemaki (bean throwing) was taken from Chinese traditions.
Previously a small homey celebration, Senso-Ji made history when it hosted the first large scale celebration in Edo. In present day, many temples around Japan hold large Setsubun celebrations.
The primary objective of celebrating Setsubun is cleaning and purification. Not dirt or dust mind you, but instead the tradition of throwing soybeans to ward off bad spirits and oni. It thereby allows families to start the New Year on a clean slate, and to welcome in good luck.
Mamemaki (豆まき), meaning bean scattering or bean throwing, is the classic tradition of Setsubun. Roasted soybeans, called lucky beans (福豆), are used.
For families with children, a common tradition is for the man of the house to don an Oni mask and act as a demon. The rest of the family members will throw beans at the “Oni” whilst chanting a phrase, “Oni wa Soto, Fuku wa Uchi” (鬼は外、福は内). This translates to “Demons out, Fortune in”.
This practice may even be done in schools. Or if you’re a foreign student studying in Japan, universities or Japanese Language Schools may give you a chance to experience this!
After the mamemaki is done and the demons are chased away, another tradition is to eat the beans. Not all of them but the same number of beans that corresponds with your age plus an additional one representing the year ahead. For example, an 8 year old child should eat 9 beans. It is believed that doing so would grant happiness and good health in the “new year”.
Temple and shrine visits during Setsubun are a common practice these days. Some of the popular places to visit include
Visitors to the temple can attend the prayers, watch performances, and receive beans thrown by priests. You can also buy protective charms and amulets. In Kyoto, you may even get the opportunity to witness Geisha or Maiko perform at these events. Or in some places, people fully dressed as Oni will “attack” the priests who will fight back by throwing beans.
Aside from Mamemaki, Ehomaki is another widespread custom in Japan.
Known as “Good Fortune Rolls”, eating Ehomaki is said to bring good luck to you. Ehomaki resembles a long fat sushi roll or Futomaki. There is a method to eating Ehomaki - it cannot be cut into smaller pieces but should be held in both hands and eaten whole. Additionally, every year there is a “lucky direction” that one should face when eating Ehomaki. For example, south-southeast was the direction for 2021. You should also not speak until finishing your roll.
Ehomaki are customarily filled with seven ingredients. This stems from the fact that there are seven gods of fortune in Japanese folklore. Common ingredients include Shiitake mushrooms, dried gourd, cucumber, tamagoyaki (fried egg), and eel.
Setsubun is an important part of Japan’s traditions and culture. You may have heard of it or seen it in anime or dramas. Now that you know what this day is about, you won’t be confused at the sudden festivities around this time. At the very least try some Ehomaki - most supermarkets and konbini offer early bird discounts and bottle drink sets if you book early. Alternatively, you can always visit them on Setsubun Day itself to get some for lunch.
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