Setsubun – All About the Japanese Demon Cleaning Day

Setsubun, Demon Cleaning Season

Setsubun (SEH-TSU-BOON) is a Japanese festival that takes place on February 3rd, the day before the start of Spring on the old Japanese calendar. It has some fun traditions that go along with it. It is a day to clean away all the evil of the former year and to chase away all evil spirits. This is done by “mamemaki” (MAH-MEH-MAH-KEY), or bean scattering. Kids love this.

Demon Chasing, or Pelting Dad with Soybeans

Now this is fun, and you can easily see why kids love it so much. Roasted soybeans are gathered and thrown around the house and out the windows. Why soybeans? Demons can not stand the smell evidently, or so I am told. Although I note that supermarkets often sell peanuts instead of soybeans, I suspect because they are cheaper. Maybe demons don’t like peanuts either.

Anyways. When throwing the beans, people call out “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!”, which roughly means “Demons out, luck in!”. People really get into this. One old woman told me that when you throw the beans out the window, you have to be sure to slam the window shut as fast as possible so the evil spirits can not get back in! Typically the father of the house will don an Oni mask. An oni is a kind of devil or demon in Japanese mythology. The children enjoy throwing the soybeans at him and chasing him away.

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Eating Your Age

After chasing all the demons and dad out of the house, everyone has to eat their age in soybeans. Easy enough for the kids, but some old people who I have talked to complain that it’s tough to eat that many! Some areas go one more and make everyone eat their age plus one more for luck in the coming year as well. The more luck the better, I say!

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Sushi Rolls

Another more recent tradition is for everyone to face a certain direction and eat a big, long sushi roll. The exact direction changes every year according to the Chinese zodiac. This year (2010) it is West South West. You are not allowed to talk while eating and once you start eating you are not allowed to pause until you finish the sushi roll. After you finish, good luck will come to you! This tradition started in Western Japan (Kansai) but has since spread to most of the country due in no small part to grocery stores and sushi shops that don’t mind selling more sushi rolls every February.

Conclusion

Setsubun is a fun time for all, and any excuse to eat a sushi roll is a good one. If you come to Japan around February, try to get here around the 3rd so you too can enjoy some demon-chasing.

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by David La Spina