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SETSUBUN (the Coming of Spring)
February 3 and 4
Setsubun - Spring Devil Banishing Ceremony
Setsubun refers to the division between
winter and spring. The term originally referred to the eve of the first day of
any of the 24 divisions of the solar year known as Setsu. Later, it came to be
applied more specifically to the last day of the Setsu called Daikan (great
cold), which corresponded to the eve of Risshun (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 New Year fell at about
the same time, Setsubun became associated with those rites of purification and
exorcism of evil deemed essential to preparing one self for the coming year and
the spring planting season.
generally always precedes the lunar New Year, and in the ancient ideal was often
actually referred to as New Years' Eve. In 2000, solar and lunar cycles
coincided enough to make the ideal almost real in that February 4th marked Risshun
(Spring Begins), and February 5th was the actual lunar New Year in both China
and Japan. In 2001, Setsubun will follow the lunar New Year (January 24)
by 11 days (Setsubun occurs on the lunar 11th day of the first month; the
solar term Spring Begins occurs on a lunar 12th day of the 1st month this year).
Some of the Setsubun observances that
were held on this day still take place on February 3rd or 4th,
even though this coincides with the coldest period of winter. For example, there
is the ritual of opening the doors and windows of houses and expelling bad luck
and evil demons by tossing beans (mostly soybeans) into the air while saying
"fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto" ("fortune in and demons
out"). In addition to the soybeans
thrown out the door, roasted soy
beans are spread around the (cleaned) floor. Family members then pick up and eat
a number equivalent to their age to ensure health and luck in the coming year.
Around major temples all around the
nation, vast crowds gather with wild chants of "fuku wa uchi, oni wa
soto". The ritual bean throwing - called mame-maki – is carried out
by the most respected citizens, such as priests, actors, and sumo wrestlers, who
aim directly at the congregation. In recent years, at famous temples and
shrines, it has become common practice for well-known personalities born under
the Chinese zodiacal sign for that year to be invited to throw out beans as a
means of soliciting visitors.
association of Setsubun with the bean-scattering ceremony is said to date from
the Muromachi period (1333-1568). This rite is linked to the observance of
Tsuina, a Chinese ceremony for driving off evils dating from the Zho (Chou)
dynasty (1067 BC – 256 BC). In China, men dressed in bear skins and masks
pretended to drive away evils with sharp weapons. Adopted in Japan, by the mid-9th
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 as Setsubun.
Depiction of an Edo Era celebration of Setsubun. The Toshi Otoko (left) throws beans about family members of the house to chase away evil. (From Sasama, 1995)
stories relate to the origin of throwing beans at Setsubun, but perhaps
one of the most famous can be seen in a Kyougen (No Comedy)
performed at Mibu Temple in Kyoto. Roughly translating (and perhaps with
a bit of poetic license) the plot of this play goes something like this: One day
an ogre disguised himself and came to the house of an old widow. He possessed a
magic mallet, and with it, he fashioned a beautiful kimono. Temptation got the
best of the old widow, and she succumbed to its beauty. She plotted to steal it
away from the ogre by getting him drunk. Not satisfied with just the kimono, she
thought she would get the magic mallet as well. Surprised by the abrasive greed
of the old woman, the ogre revealed his true self. So scared, the old widow got
hysterical and starting throwing the first thing handy, a bunch of beans she had
on hand. They must have hurt, because the ogre fled the scene leaving the widow
without her greedy desires but nonetheless wiser and healthier.
celebrations of Setsubun involve eating Nori Maki, a special sushi
roll. Particularly in Western Japan, many face the "lucky direction"
(in geomantic form) for the year (~SSE for the New Year in 2001) and try to eat
the entire sushi roll without saying a word. Those who are able to accomplish
this feat (the roll is about 20 cm long) are promised luck with their business,
longevity, and freedom from illness. In Osaka, where this tradition appears to
have originated, some people say the practice started when a young Geisha ate
the tasty delicacy in order to assure she would be with her favorite lover in
the coming year. In some areas, the Nori Maki is made with a stuffing of
seven colors which represent Shichi Fukujin (seven gods of happiness).
These gods can be seen in the illustration of "happiness beans" below.
Fuku Mame (Happiness Beans) are sold at Setsubun. Beans such as these may chase many an ogre away. This particular brand also sports images of Shichi Fukujin (the Japanese seven gods of happiness) sailing merrily along.
the night of Setsubun, many Japanese will decorate a holy tree in front
of their houses with a head of a sardine, a clove of garlic, or an onion. Such
talismans are designed to keep the oni away as the New Year approaches
(though the neighbor's cat may not be so intimidated). Oni are said to be
stung by the leaf of the holy tree (a vitalistic Shinto symbol in its own right)
and thus keep their distance from the home for the coming year.
more ancient times, with a Chinese based lunar calendar superimposed on
indigenous ritual, the seasonal significance of Setsubun was more
pronounced, incorporating traditional values of lineality, optimism, and
vitality in ritual behavior and in ritual objects themselves. Beans, seeds, the
source of life... rice rolled in seaweed, fruits of land and sea... all used to
ward off coming evil and insure future productivity... objects whose ingestion
assured vitality and purification. The centrality of this "last event of
the year" and its implication for activities of a culture dependent upon an
agrarian and marine base still hold at least symbolic significance for many in