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"Setsubun" in Japan Heralds the Arrival of Spring!

Updated: Apr 26, 2022

" Drive-away-demons-with-beans" act and related event foods The photo above is from the annual "Mamemaki", bean-throwing ceremony held at Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto on "Setsubun" in early February. "Setsubun" is the day before spring begins, and the next day marks the start of a new year. The geiko and kabuki actors throw small bags of roasted soybeans at the crowd. A large crowd of spectators is waiting to catch them. We introduce the origin of Setsubun and Mamemaki, which are cherished as traditional Japanese events that bring in good fortune and spring, and the unique foods associated with the special day. Table of Contents 1. What is the origin and meaning of "Setsubun"? 2. What is "Mamemaki" to drive away demons? 3. Procedure and Rules of Mamemaki  4. Eating "Eho-maki" silently on Setsubun, Why? 5. Summary

1. What is the origin and meaning of "Setsubun"?

Setsubun" means the "division" of the seasons. Initially, there were four divisions for each of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, but nowadays, only the day before" Risshun," the beginning of spring (usually around February 4), is called "Setsubun." In 2022, Setsubun will be on February 3 as usual. Since February 4 in 1984, Setsubun has been set on February 3, but in 2021, it was set on February 2, which made a buzz. In 2025, Setsubun will be on February 2 again. If we think of the year as revolving in the order of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, Setsubun, the day before the change of seasons between winter and spring, is the last day of the year. Since Risshun is the beginning of a new year, events such as bean-throwing to get rid of bad luck are held on Setsubun, the day before Risshun.

2. What is "Mamemaki" to drive away demons? 

So, how did "Mamemaki" begin? Have you ever tended to get sick when the seasons change? Mamemaki is a ritual to drive away from the illnesses and misfortunes that tend to occur at the turning of the seasons, by making them look like "Oni (demons)." Originally, the ritual of "Tsuina (driving away evil spirits)" was held at the Imperial Court on Setsubun, but it spread to the general public and became popular. In Japan, there are various tales and legends about "Oni" (demons), but we can say that humans created them in the first place. We have been accustomed to saying that the invisible and inexplicable causes of fear such as illness, disasters, accidents, and hunger are the work of Oni. With their horns and fangs, Oni embodies human fear and anxiety. Also, since we believed that Oni comes at night, Mamemaki is done at night (most events at temples and shrines are held during the day, though). The beans used for Mamemaki are called "Fuku-mame(Happy beans)." Since ancient times, people in Japan have believed that grains such as rice and beans have spiritual power. By roasting soybeans, putting them in a Masu, square wooden box, and offering them to the altar, they become " Fuku-mame," or beans with the power of the gods to ward off evil spirits. Since eating Fukumame gives you the power of the gods, many people gather at temples and shrines to get the Fukumame that is thrown at them during the bean-throwing ceremony.

↑ Two Onis at Go'o Shrine in Kyoto. They are said to be kind demons who are willing to take photos.

3. Procedure and Rules of Mamemaki 

Now, let me explain the procedure and rules of Mamemaki. Traditionally, the "Toshin Otoko(Year's Men)" is supposed to throw beans. Men born in the year of the Chinese zodiac are called "Toshi Otoko." For example, the year 2022 is the year of the tiger in the Chinese zodiac, so men born in the year of the tiger (age 12, 24, etc.) are called "Toshi Otoko." The men lined up at the balcony in the photo above are Toshi Otoko. At some temples and shrines, the Toshi Otoko and the Toshi Onna(Year's Women) would perform the act. However, when the bean-throwing event is held at home, the whole family will throw the beans together. The procedure for Mamemaki is as follows. 1. Prepare the beans by nightfall. 2. To prevent Oni from entering the house, display "Iwashi Hiiragi," holly branches with roasted sardine heads on them, at the gate or entrance. Because Oni is said to hate beans and holly, which is said to sting their eyes with its thorns, and sardines, which smell roasted smoke Oni dislikes. 3. Perform at around 8-10 pm. Leave the front door, balcony, and windows open. 4. Toshi Otoko will go around each room from the entrance with beans and yell "Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi," Demon out, blessings in, twice at each entrance and exit and the beans outward. 5. Shut the door immediately after throwing the beans to keep out Oni and to keep the good fortune in. 6. After Mamemaki, all family members eat the beans together. The rule is to eat only your age, or the number of your age plus one bean. It is said that the number of beans you eat will bring you good fortune.

↑ "Iwashi Hiiragi," a grilled sardine head stuck into a holly branch

↑ "Iwashi Hiiragi" displayed under the eaves of the entrance

4. Eating "Eho-maki" silently on Setsubun, Why?

"Eho-maki" is a fat sushi roll eaten on Setsubun. It is an event food from the Kansai(Western part of Japan) eaten on the night of Setsubun, facing the direction of "Eho," the direction that brings good luck, to pray for prosperity and good health. In honor of the seven gods of good fortune (the seven deities believed to bring happiness in Japan), there is no specific type of food, but it is a fat roll with seven different ingredients rolled up. To make your wish come true, you must bite into the roll from the end without cutting it with a knife and keep silent until you finish eating. This custom was initially popular around the Edo period (1603-1868), mainly in the Kansai region, but has recently become so popular that Eho-maki is sold in convenience stores nationwide. Also, "Fuku-cha(Happy tea)" (image below) made by pouring boiling water over a cup of kelp tsukudani, or salted kelp, a pickled plum, and three fuku-mame beans is savored during Setsubun. Three(beans) are said to be a lucky number, while the dried plum blossoms in winter and is fragrant, as a plum fruit to ward off evil, and the kombu (also called kobu) has the meaning of "joy" in Japanese. It is a tea that you can taste the aroma of roasted beans, the saltiness and sourness of dried plums, and the flavor of kelp. If you drink it with Eho-maki, you may have more luck!

5. Summary

Mamemaki at home in Japan is an imitation of throwing beans at a masked demon to beat him off, as shown in the picture above. It is vital to enjoy seasonal events together to pass on the Japanese culture to the next generation. With the spread of the custom of eating Eho-maki, more people are becoming aware of Setsubun than ever before. We can't help but feel that food has a significant influence in connecting culture and customs to the future.

Setsubun, which marks the beginning of spring, is also a second chance to start a new year following New Year's. It is the perfect opportunity to review how you are doing with your goals for this year at New Year's.

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