On February 3rd, if you’re in Japan and someone throws soy beans at you, don’t take offense. They’re actually doing you a favor.
Actually, you’re (probably) not going to have soy beans thrown at you. But the day―Setsubun (節分)―does involve soy bean tossing, and it’s one of the more important days on the traditional Japanese festival calendar.
Setsubun is something of a Lunar New Year ritual, though its timing actually matches the Spring Festival (春分の日; shunbun no hi) date. It’s seen as an opportunity to cleanse the spirit of evil and start the new year with a fresh, newly-laundered soul. This is where the beans come in. Roasted soy beans are either tossed out of the door of the home or, more commonly, one of the members of the family will wear an oni (鬼; demon) mask, and the rest of the family will throw beans at him. The soy beans are the ones that attack the bad spirits and drive them away.
So, if you do have beans thrown at you on February 3rd, perhaps you should be a little bit offended. You apparently look like a demon.
Through the “ceremony”, participants will also recite “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! (鬼は外！福は内！)” which basically means “Oni (representing evil, disasters, bad health), get out! Fortune, come in!”
Setsubun is one of the oldest traditions still alive and well in Japan. Dating back to the Muromachi period (1336-1573 C.E.), you can still get right into the festivities today. Most Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines will put on a festival of sorts on the day, in which priests will toss wrapped soy beans or, at larger shrines, small pockets of money, candies, or other treats out into the audience.
Often, at the largest shrines, celebrities involved in traditional Japanese cultural activities (such as sumo wrestlers), will also make an appearance. They’ll often be dressed in outlandish traditional garb, and this is in keeping in line with the traditions of the holiday, too; traditionally it was a day for playing deceptive games with what you wear. Young geisha would wear their hair like old women. Men and women would cross-dress. The “low brow” nature of the day even meant that performers (who, back in the Muromachi period, were considered the lowest of the lower classes) were even invited to participate in society and put on plays for the audience.
They were the ones who would take the evil spirits with them as they left the next day, so the people of the period thought. It was useful to have them around for that one day.
Of course, today, performers are held in quite high esteem, and indeed are often the ones invited by the larger shrines to be the celebrity appearance. Otherwise, however, the celebration of the day has changed little over the centuries, and so anyone who is interested in experiencing traditional Japanese culture will get a real kick out of going to one of the shrine festivals.
One note of caution: as tempting as it can be to go to Asakusa and the massive Sensō-ji to experience the day, the crowds that do show up are incredible; as many as 100,000 visitors converge, depending on the conditions that day. You’re not going to see a lot from within the throng, and when the “prizes” are tossed out into the crowd, the resulting pushing and shoving is as close as the normally ordered and polite Japanese get to chaos... if not straight-up rioting. They’re pros at it, too. You’ll see a little bag come flying your way, and you may even get your fingertips to it, thinking that you’re a lucky fellow having scored a great souvenir, and then BAM! A little old lady who, on any other day would be the loveliest person you’ve ever met, has ripped it out of your hands.
If you’re not feeling hardcore enough to brave Sensō-ji, then pick one of the smaller temples or shrines and enjoy the warm festival atmosphere.
One final side to the modern event is the amount of stuff that Japanese retailers sell around the day. Traditionally you should eat one soy bean for every year you’ve been alive (another sad downside to tipping over the 30-year-old mark), but you’ll see all kinds of stuff in convenience stores and other outlets. Just keep an eye out for the oni faces and you’ll know what you’re looking at.
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