Visiting Japan in February? We highly recommend you plan your trip in time with Setsubun. This festive holiday packs together tons of Japanese traditions that are still alive today. Let’s discover together what Setsubun is, and what to expect and learn from this event.
What is Setsubun?
The day prior to the start of spring in Japan’s traditional calendar is known as Setsubun (節分). The name literally translates to “seasonal division”. While Setsubun used to refer to a wider range of possible dates, it is now typically celebrated on February 3 (in 2021, it fell on February 2), with the day after being known as Risshun (立春), which is the first day of spring in the old calendar. Every year, Japan celebrates Setsubun and Risshun as part of the Spring Festival (春祭 Haru Matsuri). It’s not the official Lunar New Year, but Setsubun is often considered similar because of its cultural links to the end of the previous year and the start of the new spring season. To ward off bad luck and evil spirits for the upcoming year, Setsubun was accompanied by a number of rituals and traditions performed at various levels.
History and Origins:
Tsuina (追儺) is a Chinese tradition that was brought to Japan in the eighth century and is where Setsubun got its start. Setsubun is most often celebrated nowadays at Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, and Geisha communities. The event was initially practiced as a part of a household’s customs for getting ready for the first season of the New Year.
Learn What To Expect on Setsubun:
The keyword for you to remember and learn is Mamemaki (豆撒き), literally “bean scattering.” Mamemaki is the main tradition associated with the celebration of Setsubun where roasted soybeans, also known as Fukumame (福豆), or “fortune beans” are either thrown out the front door or at a family member wearing an Oni (demon or ogre) mask while yelling “Devils out! Fortune in!” (鬼は外! 福は内! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa Uchi!)
By chasing away the evil spirits that bring disaster and ill health, the beans are said to symbolically purify the home. Then, it is common to eat one roasted soybean for each year that you’ve lived (Kazoedoshi 数え年), and then one more to provide luck for the entire year, as part of the “fortune in” half of the saying.
The tradition of Mamemaki dates back to the Muromachi era (室町時代) and is often carried out by the male head of the family or by a male member of the household who was born in the New Year’s matching zodiac (Toshiotoko 年男).
Although Mamemaki is still occasionally practiced in homes, many people choose to go to a shrine or temple’s spring festival instead. In some cities, like Kyoto, this involves watching an apprentice geisha perform a dance before throwing packets of roasted soybeans to the crowds. In other places, invited guests spread little envelopes filled with cash, sweets, candy, and other rewards together with packets of roasted soybeans, some of which are wrapped in gold or silver foil.
Last but not least, Celebrities and Sumo wrestlers are often invited to celebrations at some larger and more prominent shrines, typically for televised Setsubun events. Nearly 100,000 people attend the annual festivals at Senso-ji in Tokyo’s Asakusa area.
There are a lot of additional, sometimes more niche traditions that are part of the celebration and observance of Setsubun. Some of these customs are local, like the Kansai tradition of eating uncut Makizushi rolls known as Ehomaki (“lucky direction roll” 恵方巻) in silence while facing the year’s lucky compass direction, which is determined by the zodiac symbol of that year. Despite its roots in Osaka, the tradition has recently expanded, partly due to marketing initiatives of grocery and convenience stores. The spring season sees an increase in the availability of Ehomaki rolls at stores in the Kanto region, and the tradition itself is growing in popularity as a part of Setsubun.
Another unusual custom is hanging miniature ornaments made of sardine heads and holly leaves (hiiragi iwashi 柊鰯) on your home’s entryway to ward off evil spirits.
Japan is home to many beautiful traditions, many of which show off how optimistic this country is about the New Year and its opportunities and challenges. Visit Japan to celebrate Setsubun and enjoy the atmosphere of this unique beginning of the year.
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