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An Introduction to the Japanese Bean-Throwing Festival


Setsubun in Japan

A man dressed as a "demon" waits to be hit by soybeans during Setsubun in Japan.

Photo by w00kie / Creative Commons

One of Japan's more bizarre festivals, Setsubun is about throwing roasted soy beans to frighten away evil spirits that could bring disease and bad luck in the new lunar year.

Setsubun is celebrated on February 3 or 4 -- the day before the beginning of spring in Japan -- during the Haru Matsuri (Spring Festival).

What is Setsubun?

Although Setsubun, also known as the Bean-Throwing Festival, is celebrated in many variations throughout Japan, the festival is not an official national holiday. Even still, throngs of people gather at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines to pick up and throw roasted soybeans.

Setsubun literally means "seasonal division," but almost always refers to the day before spring, properly known as Risshun.

Modern Setsubun has evolved into televised events with appearances from sumo wrestlers and other various national celebrities. Candy, envelopes with money, and small gifts are also thrown to entice the frenzied crowd who rush and sometimes push to collect the prizes!

Throwing Soybeans

Bean-throwing ceremonies known as mame maki are performed during Setsubun with shouts and chants of "oni wa soto!" (get out demons!) and "fuku wa uchi!" (come in happiness). The beans are meant to drive away wandering and mischievous spirits before they can come into homes to cause trouble.

Along with throwing fuku mame or "fortune beans," people eat one soybean for every year of their age. The practice of eating the soybeans first began in the Kansai or Kinki region of south-central Japan, however, it has been propagated around the country by marketing from stores selling fuku mame. Participants in some parts of Japan eat one additional bean for good health in the coming year.

Peanuts and sugar-coated beans are sometimes substituted in place of the traditional soybeans.

Setsubun Traditions

Although not as common as throwing beans, some families still carry on the tradition of yaikagashi, where sardine heads and holly leaves are hung above doorways to keep unwanted spirits out.

Eho-maki sushi rolls are traditionally eaten during Setsubun to bring good fortune, while hot ginger sake is drank for health. If strict traditions are observed, a family eats in silence while facing the direction that good fortune will come from in the new year; the direction is determined by the year's zodiac symbol.

If celebrating Setsubun at home rather than at a larger ceremony, typically the head of the house gets the dubious honor of playing the "demon" by donning a mask and standing in front of an open window. The rest of the family shouts and throws a hailstorm of soybeans or peanuts at him until all agree that enough is enough!

Older traditions included fasting, extra religious rituals, and even bringing in outdoor tools into homes to prevent the spirits from rusting them. Geisha still participate in old traditions by wearing disguises, or even dressing as men when with clients during Setsubun.

The History of Setsubun

Once considered a sort of New Year's Eve, people have been celebrating some form of Setsubun in Japan since the 1300s. Setsubun was introduced to Japan as tsuina by the Chinese in the 8th century.

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