The term “Setsebun sai” literally means “seasonal division” but it actually relates to the Spring Setsebun known as Risshun and takes place on the day prior to the onset of spring in Japan according to the East Asian solar calendar.
Also going by the name Bean-throwing festival, it is celebrated every year on the 3rd of February. On this day, the Japanese traditionally believe that our world is closest to the spirit world.
Due to this, it’s thought that strange unexplained things can happen on this day like the appearance of demons and other evil spirits.
Associated with the Lunar New Year, this festival can also be thought of as a kind of New Year’s Eve and thus involves a special custom of cleaning away the dirt and evil of the bygone year and warding off evil spirits of the incoming year called ‘mamemaki’. This special ritual was introduced in Japan in the eighth century.
This custom was first introduced in the Muromachi period in the eighth century. It is generally performed by the ‘toshiotoko’ or the male whose birth is on the corresponding year of the Chinese zodiac animal or usually the male head of the household. Roasted soybeans also known as future beans are thrown out of the door or at the family member wearing an ‘Oni’ mask, Oni referring to a demon or ogre. The soybeans used for Setsebun are sweet, hard and crunchy and children throw them at the masked family member while other people say “Demons out! Luck in!” and slam the door. This ritual is performed commonly in the households as well as many people perform it at a shrine or at the temple’s spring festival. The soybeans symbolize purifying the house by shooing away the evil spirits that lead misfortune and bad health with them. As an extension of the ritual, people eat roasted soybeans equal to their age plus an extra one for bringing in prosperity and good luck in the coming year.
In Osaka, it’s a custom to eat uncut maki sushi on Setsebun. This is known as ‘makizushi’ or ‘eho-maki’ which is a sort of thick and large roll. The people, who are engaged in eating the sushi or the participants, complete the entire roll in pin drop silence in a single sitting. It is customary to face a certain “eho” or lucky direction as you eat. This direction varies every year based on a five year cycle and determined by the year’s zodiac symbol. Eho for the year 2019 is north-north-west.
Setsebun is celebrated all over the Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines of Japan. Priests and invited guests such as local celebrities or eminent personalities take part in a ritual during which they throw roasted soybeans often wrapped in gold or silver foil, envelopes with money, candies, sweets and other prizes into the crowd. The festivities that take place in bigger shrines and temples are telecasted nationally. Like other winter festivals of Japan, Setsebun too involves a big bon fire. One of the most popular and well known events held during this festival every year is the program hosted at the Senso-ji temple, located in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo. There is a footfall of nearly a 100,000 people each year and the crowd turns quite wild, pushing and shoving each other to get their hands on the gifts that are thrown on them. During this festival, families also hang decorations and talismans made from sardine heads and holly leaves on their house entrances to prevent evil spirits from entering. Ginger sake (Japanese rice wine) is also drunk as a ritual in these times.
- Historical Practices
Customs like religious dances, festivals and keeping tools inside the house which are generally kept outside at any other time of the year used to be followed earlier. The tools were believed to be capable of keeping the people safe and preventing the spirits from hurting them. As during this festival, the spirit world is considered to be very close to our world, people also used to practice the act of role reversal. This involved young girls sporting the hairstyles and clothes of older women and vice versa. It also included the use of disguises and cross-dressing between the genders. This ritual is still carried out by the Geisha (traditional Japanese female entertainers) when they entertain during Setsebun. Travelling entertainers, who were otherwise looked down upon during the rest of the year, were welcomed heartily during Setsebun to act in morality plays. The reason that they were considered vagrants worked in their favor as people believed that they could take away the bad spirits with them.
- Regional Variations
In the Tohoku area of Japan, the male head of the household, generally the father takes the roasted soybeans in his hand, deliver prayers at the family shrine and then throw those sanctified beans out of the door. In many houses, peanuts (raw or having a sweet, crunchy covering) are usually used in place of soybeans, as the peanuts can be eaten even after the ritual by un-shelling them. In the city of Aizuwakamatsu, the chant is modified to “smash the demon’s eyeballs!” The practice of Makizushi is native to the Osaka and Kansai area of Japan.