(Revised January 2015)
Setsubun generally always precedes the lunar New Year, and in the ancient ideal was often actually referred to as New Year's Eve. In 2008, solar and lunar cycles coincided enough to make the ideal almost real in that February 4th marked Risshun (Spring Begins), and February 7th was the actual lunar New Year in both China and Japan. In 2015, Setsubun occurs about two weeks earlier than the lunar New Year (February 19th).
Setsubun has been celebrated in many ways, but perhaps the most common custom found throughout Japan is the traditional Mame Maki or the scattering/throwing of beans (mame) to chase away the evil oni (ogres, evil spirits, as depicted in the illustration which heads this article). In some ritual forms, the Toshi Otoko [literally "year man" but referring either to the "man of the house" or to men who are born in the animal sign of the coming year (sheep for the year 2015)] will throw mame within the house or at someone perhaps dressed as oni and repeat the saying Oni wa Soto; Fuku wa Uchi (Get out Ogre! Come in Happiness!). After the ritual throwing of the beans, family members may then pick up the number of beans corresponding to their age; eating these brings assurance of good fortune in the coming year. These days, of course, it is not uncommon to see children dressed in masks of oni, others madly throwing beans, and all gleefully shouting for evil to hit the road. Prominent temples in Japan may also find monks or celebrities showering large crowds of people with mame to ward off spirits and welcome the renewal of the coming New Year.
Other celebrations of Setsubun involve eating Nori Maki, a special sushi roll. Particularly in Western Japan, many may face a "lucky direction" (in geomantic form) and try to eat the entire sushi roll without saying a word. Those who are able to accomplish this feat (the roll is about 20 cm long) are promised luck with their business, longevity, and freedom from illness. In Osaka, where this tradition appears to have originated, some people say the practice started when a young Geisha ate the tasty delicacy in order to assure she would be with her favorite lover in the coming year. In some areas, the Nori Maki is made with a stuffing of seven colors which represent Shichi Fukujin (seven gods of happiness). These gods can be seen in the illustration of "happiness beans" below.
On the night of Setsubun, many Japanese will decorate a holy tree in front of their houses with a head of a sardine, a clove of garlic, or an onion. Such talismans are designed to keep the oni away as the New Year approaches (though the neighbor's cat may not be so intimidated). Oni are said to be stung by the leaf of the holy tree (a vitalistic Shinto symbol in its own right) and thus keep their distance from the home for the coming year.
In more ancient times, with a Chinese based lunar calendar superimposed on indigenous ritual, the seasonal significance of Setsubun was more pronounced, incorporating traditional values of lineality, optimism, and vitality in ritual behavior and in ritual objects themselves. Beans, seeds, the source of life... rice rolled in seaweed, fruits of land and sea... all used to ward off coming evil and insure future productivity... objects whose ingestion assured vitality and purification. The centrality of this "last event of the year" and its implication for activities of a culture dependent upon an agrarian and marine base still hold at least symbolic significance for many in Japan.
These days, because of its solar orientation, Setsubun is one of the few festivals celebrated in Japan relative to actual astronomical reckoning, although most young Japanese have no idea that there is any incongruence throwing beans on a day occurring over a month past their memory of a Gregorian New Year. Of course, when a luni-solar calendar was in actual use, another source of confusion regarding Setsubun occurred. As mentioned in our article on The Lunar Calendar in Japan, years with leap months could contain 383-385 days. "Leap" years could thus often have 2 "Spring Begins", one at the beginning of the year and another at the end or 12th month. The confusion of having two "New Years' Eves" was eloquently described by famed poet Motokata Arihara in Kokinshu (see Watanabe, 1994), although our translation does not do justice to his dry wit:
Campbell, A., D.S. Noble, et al (1993) Japan; An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tokyo: Kodansha Ltd.
Nojiri, H. (1992) Hoshi Sanbyaku Rokujyu Go Ya (365 Starry Nights). Tokyo: Kouseisha Kouseikaku.
Okada, Y. and S. Akune (1993) Gendai Koyomi Yomikaki Jiten (Modern Calendar Dictionary). Tokyo: Kashiwa Shoubou.
Sasama, Y. (1995) Fukugen; Edo Seikatsu Zuroku (Restorations; Picture Book of Edo Era Life). Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobou.
Sasama, Y. (1992) Shiryou; Nihon Rekishi Zuroku (References; Japanese Historical Illustrations). Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobou.
Shinmura, I. ed. (1994) Koujien (Japanese Etymological Dictionary). Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.
Watanabe, T. (1994) Koyomi Nyumon; Koyomi no Subete (Introduction to the Calendar; All about the Calendar). Tokyo, Yuzankaku.
Steven L. Renshaw
Return to Astronomy in Japan Home Page