Setsubun is a traditional ceremony to dispel demons usually observed on the third of February. The practice of scattering beans (豆撒き mamemaki) to drive away demons is one of some magical rites performed to ward off evil.
The word setsubun (節分) originally referred to the eve of the first day of any of the twenty-four divisions of the solar year known as setsu (節). Later it was applied more specifically to the last day of the setsu called daikan (大寒, “great cold”), which corresponded to the eve of risshun (立春, “the first day of spring”), the New Year’s Day of the ancient solar calendar and the traditional beginning of spring.
Since risshun and the traditional celebration of the New Year fell at about the same time, setsubun was associated with rites of purification and exorcism of evil deemed essential to preparing oneself for the coming year and the spring planting season. In many places in Japan the observance of setsubun includes rites associated with koshōgatsu (小正月, “Little New Year”) such as toshiura (年占), auguries for forecasting the year’s crop; and nariki-zeme (成り木責め), spells for a plentiful fruit harvest.
The association of setsubun with the bean-throwing ceremony is said to date from the Muromachi Period (1333-1568). This rite is linked to the observance of tsuina (追儺, Chin.: zhuinuo or chui-no), a Chinese ceremony for driving off devils dating from the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (1027-256 BCE). In China on New Year’s Eve men dressed in bearskins and masks and pretended to drive away devils with sharp weapons. Adopted in Japan, by the mid-ninth century the rite of tsuina was incorporated into the cycle of annual events observed by the imperial court, and from the Muromachi Period, it came to be enacted at setsubun.
On setsubun beans (usual soybeans) are roasted and placed in a small wooden box (masu) of the type used for measuring rice or sake. The beans are scattered inside and outside the house or building to the common chant of Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (鬼は外! 福は内! “Out with demons! In with good luck!”). It is customary for family members to eat the same number of beans as their age. In recent years it has become common practice at famous temples and shrines for well-known personalities born under the Chinese zodiacal sign for that year (十干十二支 jikkan junishi) to be invited to throw out beans as a means of soliciting visitors.
Another habit that originated in the Kansai region is to eat eho-maki (恵方巻, “lucky direction rolls”), makizushi that are left unsliced, silently partaken of while facing the lucky direction of the particular year. This habit has reached other parts of Japan, and eho-maki can be found in many shops and convenience stores all over Japan around 3 February. Nowadays, it common to see peanuts being scattered instead of roasted soybeans.
Setsubun festival in Fukuoka (photo credit: hiro.kota)