Today is Setsubun, in my opinion probably the most unusual day on the Japanese calendar. Because of it’s original association with the Lunar New Year, it is thought of as a new beginning, a time to drive away evil spirits and prepare the home for the year to come. This is done by opening the windows and throwing roasted soybeans both inside and outside the home while shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” which loosely translates as “Evil spirits out. Good luck in”. As part of bringing in the good luck, it is then customary to pick up the beans and eat one for each year of your life. In recent years, some families have chosen to use peanuts instead of soybeans. Some people wear devil’s masks while performing this ritual while others hang small decorations made of holly and sardine heads over the entrances to their homes to discourage the evil spirits from reentering once they’ve been driven out.
Setsubun is also celebrated at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines throughout the country where celebrities are often invited to assist the priests by scattering the beans.
In keeping with the theme of new beginnings, Setsubun is also considered the last day of winter even though my students assure me that the weather won’t change significantly for awhile yet. Though there’s a bit of warmth in this evening’s breeze, the weather forecast seems to concur.
There are some variations in how Setsubun is celebrated in different regions of the country. For example, it has long been customary in the Kansai area to eat uncut sushi rolls on Setsubun while facing the lucky compass direction for that year, as determined by it’s zodaic symbol. Through the marketing efforts of supermarkets and convenience stores, this tradition seems to have spread to other parts of the country. I saw these rolls being sold in several spots on my way to and from work today. In front of the convenience store close to the school where I taught today, they were being sold by two young men who were dressed in red and wearing devil masks.
There may be some Japanese traditions that I’d be willing to adopt but I don’t think this will be one of them. While I most definitely believe in the existence of both good and evil in the spiritual realm, I don’t think I’ll ever put my faith in soybeans! It sure is fascinating to learn about these unusual customs though.