On February 3rd this year, the Japanese will throw beans around their houses and eat large sushi rolls. These two activities are part of an annual tradition called Setsubun.
What is setsubun?
Setsubun could literally be translated as “the separation of the seasons.” According to Aroha-Japan.net, a website specializing in explaining Japanese cultural events, setsubun is the day before the traditional start of a new season on Japan’s ancient twenty-four season calendar. These days setsubun is most associated with the traditional beginning of spring, known as risshun, on or around February 4th.
Why do they throw beans on setsubun?
The belief is that throwing beans will help keep away bad luck. In fact, while people throw beans they traditionally shout the famous saying, “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi,” meaning “Out with the demons, in with the fortune!”
Aroha-Japan gave a more detailed reasoning of the uses of beans. Bean in Japanese is “mame” (pronounced ma-may). Using different Chinese characters, “mame” can also mean “evil’s eye,” as well as the “destruction of evil.” So, by throwing beans, one is figuratively throwing the eyes of evil so it can be destroyed.
Setsubun festivals at temples and shrines
Various Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines around the country will hold festivals on setsubun. Visitors will receive beans that they can use to cast the demons present, as well as beans they can eat.
On a side note, Shuyu Kanaoka, an expert on Buddhism, pointed out in one of his books that at some temples that famous setsubun saying is actually “In with the ogres, in with the fortune.” This is because at the setsubun festivals these demons or ogres are actually gods that have embraced Buddhism, and one would not want to turn away a god.
Other setsubun traditions
One of the famous traditions on setsubun is eating a large sushi roll. The tradition holds that one should silently eat an uncut roll facing the direction in which the god of fortune and luck is residing that year. This year that direction is south-southwest.
Another tradition is to eat beans for luck and health. One should eat the same number of beans as their age. Some also say to eat one more bean beyond that to ward off colds and other health problems.
A final tradition is to stick the roasted head of a sardine on a branch of holly. The stench is supposed to drive away demons. These days some people eat sardines with sushi rolls.