It still might be freezing outside, but in a few days, spring will officially arrive (that is, according to the traditional Japanese calendar). And, before spring (AKA the new year) starts, you’d better cast off the misfortune of the previous year. How to do that? The answer is Setsubun, the Japanese way to bring good luck to your home.
What Is Setsubun?
To begin, Setsubun (節分), is very an auspicious event in the traditional and modern Japanese calendar with a literal meaning of “seasonal division.”
You see, the start of spring (risshun | 立春) falls on or around February 4, so setsubun is the division between winter and spring.
But, Setsubun is more than just a day on the calendar. February 2, 3, or 4 (depending on the year) is when people all over Japan participate in mamemaki (豆撒き | “bean scattering”), the act of throwing “lucky” roasted soybeans (福豆 | fukumame) to drive away evil.
Accompanying mamemaki is the chant Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! (鬼は外! 福は内! ), meaning “Evil out! Good luck in!”
Oftentimes, fukumame are thrown towards a person dressed up as or simply wearing the mask of an oni (鬼 | demon).
The Cast of Setsubun
You’ll frequently see the red demon, AKA aka oni on Setsubun displays and promotions, and sometimes a blue one as well.
But, actually, there are not one, not two, but five oni associated with Setsubun. Each represents one of the Five Hindrances of Buddhism:
- Red: (赤鬼 | Aka oni) represents greed (貪欲 | don yoku)
- Blue: (青鬼 | Ao oni) represents anger (怒り) and misery (貧相 | hindou)
- Yellow: (黄鬼 | kiiro oni) represents restlessness (掉挙 | jouko) *This one is sometimes white
- Green: (緑鬼 | midori oni) represents lethargy (惛沈 | konjin)
- Black (黒鬼 | kuro oni) represents indecisiveness (疑 | gi)
You may also see a mask depicting the pale face of a woman, too, who represents good fortune. This is okame (おかめ), a traditional mask in Japanese performances. I guess she’s the lady of the house, and perhaps Setsubun all boils down to “happy wife, happy life?”
What To Eat During Setsubun
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Every traditon worth celebrating has a signature dish. The symbolic food of Setsubun is ehoumaki (恵方巻), a giant rolled sushi that will bring you good luck if eaten whole while facing a certain direction with your eyes closed.
The direction is based on the Chinese zodiac, and changes every year. For 2021, it’s south southeast (南 南東).
If you’re not a fan of sushi but have a serious sweet tooth, stop by a convenience store or department store for a “dessert” ehoumaki, a roll cake filled with whipped cream and fruits, and colored black with cocoa powder, bamboo charcoal or squid ink.
How To Celebrate Setsubun at Home
Decorate your doorstep with hiiragi iwashi (柊鰯), a “wreath” made from sardine heads and holly. It keeps the demons at bay thanks to the combination of smelly sardines and pointy holly leaves.
It might be hard to come across the materials for hiiragi iwashi, but mamemaki is definitely a fun Japanese event to try at home.
Have someone wear an oni (ogre mask) and let the other family members throw fukumame to drive out the evil being. Oni masks can be found nearly anywhere.
Get all you need to torment your children over on Amazon Japan.
In fact, visit any supermarket this time of the year, and you’ll see a Setsubun display with fukumame and masks all ready to be bought.
For younger kids, you’ll likely want to avoid beans, so have them tear up newspapers and roll them into balls to throw at the oni. Kids will also have fun making oni crafts or oni masks.
Learn how to make these origami oni here (link in Japanese).
To get crafty for Setsubun do checkout this amazing collection of (free) resources over on In Saitama! Don’t forget to make a few ehoumaki rolls for dinner and top it all off with an ehoumaki dessert cake!
Another way to celebrate as a family is to head to a temple where minor and major celebrities and prominent local figures trow beans, gifts, and even cash at crowds.
These can be rowdy events at larger temples like Sensoji in Asakusa, so stick to a neighborhood temple if you have smaller kiddies.
For more on Setsubun and other Japanese celebrations, I recommend this book, Japanese Traditions: Rice Cakes, Cherry Blossoms and Matsuri: A Year of Seasonal Japanese Festivities: