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February, Demons out! Fortune in! – Seasons of Japan

February is known as the month of Kisaragi in Japan, which means putting on more clothes due to the cold weather.

Among the events and customs that have been handed down in Japan since ancient times, the traditional event of February is “Setsubun”. On the day of Setsubun, around February 3, there is a custom of warding off evil spirits and praying for good health. This article explains how to spend Setsubun in Japan.


What is Setsubun?

Setsubun has the meaning of "dividing the seasons" and refers to the turning of the seasons. Originally, it occurred four times a year – The first day of spring (Risshun), summer (Rikka), autumn (Risshuu), and winter (Rittou), but gradually only one day before Risshun came to be called Setsubun.

In the lunar calendar (lunisolar calendar), Risshun is an important day as it is the beginning of the year. The day before Risshun, New Year's Eve, has come to be especially revered. Incidentally, Risshun is determined by the position of the sun, so it may change from year to year.

In Japan it has been believed that evil spirits, or demons, tend to approach you at the turn of the seasons and to welcome the New Year in the best way, various events have been held to clear away evil spirits.

The Setsubun event has its roots in the ancient Chinese ritual of "Tsuina", which was held on New Year's Eve in the imperial court to drive away evil spirits. It was brought to Japan during the reign of Emperor Bunmu (697-707) and was adopted as a court event during the Heian period (794-1185).

Originally, it was a ceremony to drive away evil and plague with bows and arrows, but since the Muromachi period (1336-1573), it developed into an event to drive away demons by throwing beans (“mame”) and spread to the common people as well.


Origin of MAMEMAKI and how to do it

setsubun japan tradition mamemaki

Mamemaki, bean-throwing, is the typical event of Setsubun, because It is believed that beans have the power to ward off evil. Furthermore, it is also believed that beans can be thrown at the eyes of demons (“akuma no me”) to drive them away.

Originally, mamemaki was said to be the duty of the patriarch of the family, and toshi-otoko/toshi-onna (men or women born in the year corresponding to the same sign under the twelve-year cycle of the Oriental zodiac), but nowadays, it is often done by the whole family. Also, since demons come at night, it is said that it is better to throw beans at night.

The method of mamemaki varies from region to region and family to family, but a common example is to open the windows and doors and throw beans outside the house while shouting "Oni wa soto" (demons out!), then close the windows and doors to prevent the demons from coming back, and throw beans inside the house while shouting "Fuku wa uchi" (fortunes in!).

Usually, soybeans are used, but in some areas, peanuts with shells are used. In the past, rice, wheat, millet, and charcoal were also used. In modern times, it is not unusual to throw sweets as well as beans.

It is bad luck for the beans to sprout after the mamemaki ceremony, as it is believed that "evil spirits will sprout", therefore the roasted beans are used. The roasted beans are called “Fukumame” (fortune beans) and it is said that if you eat as many beans as your age in counting year (full age plus one) after the ceremony, you will bring in as much good fortune as your age and spend a healthy year.


Customs other than Mamemaki during Setsubun

There are other events besides Mamemaki during Setsubun. Here are some of the most popular ones.


Ehomaki is a type of sushi roll eaten on Setsubun. It is eaten without cutting, to avoid cutting the human connection. It was originally a custom in Western regions but has since spread nationwide. One's health and happiness of the year will come true, it is said if one faces the "eho" direction that brings a good fortune of the year and bites the whole sushi while silently making a wish.

Hiiragi SardineIwashi (sardine heads and holly olive branches)

Hiiragi Iwashi is a sardine head stuck on a holly olive branch with leaves. It is displayed at the entrance to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. This originates from the fact that demons do not like the fishy smell of sardines and the painful spikes of holly olive leaves. This custom is similar to that of decorating doorways with garlic to avoid Dracula in some European countries.

setsubun japan tradition mamemaki


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