Setsubun: magic beans in Japan

Feb 3rd is Setsubun in Japan. As far as tradition goes, Setsubun’s the first day of spring. Except it’s still cold. The kanji (節分) come from ‘separating the seasons’. It’s over a month ’til spring equinox on March 21st. But if you tell yourself it’s spring now, maybe you’ll feel warmer.

Japan’s idea of ‘spring cleaning’ is to sweep winter evil outside. How? By throwing beans at demons until they leave. In reality, that means getting a family member to wear a ‘demon’ mask, and throwing beans at them as they run away. Same difference.

Banish demons with the power of soy

The best beans to use are roasted soy beans. Think how much mess baked beans’d make…

For Setsubun, they’re called ‘fortune beans’ (福豆, fukumame). Special demon-banishing fortune beans are sold in kilo bags and small packets (actual ‘bean bags’). The little triangle-shaped bags are easier for kids to throw. And easier for their parents to tidy up afterwards.

Japanese supermarkets and conbinis sell packs of beans that come with a free demon mask. Yep, this is weirder than ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ was.

The ritual’s usually led by a man. ‘Tradition’, y’know? It should be either the oldest male in the house, or one born under the same Chinese zodiac sign as the current year. Some families prefer watching a Setsubun ceremony at their nearest shrine. That works, too.

But let’s be honest, throwing beans is fun for everyone. You’ll need as much help banishing that evil as you can get. Give it a go at least once.

You’ve gotta chant as you chuck. Demons out, luck in! Demons out, luck in! (鬼は外、福は内 – oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!) This video translates ‘oni’ as ‘goblins’ instead, but the tune’s the important bit.

Simple, short and repetitive, yet super effective.

Keep yelling until the demon’s been beaned out the room, then slam the door behind them. You don’t have to shout, “And don’t come back!” but it feels good if you do. There, now your room’s purified for spring.

Sure, you should let your masked victim back in afterwards. “Sorry, I thought you were a real demon…” won’t work. But rest easy, that evil’s stuck out in the cold.

Time to tidy up. If you’ve got any beans left, eat 1 for every year of your life. In some areas of Japan, it’s popular to eat 1 more for luck.

Spin the roll of fortune and make a wish

In Kansai, we also have ehoumaki (恵方巻) sushi rolls to eat during Setsubun. Yep, when everyone else eats food for luck, we eat more food for luck.

An ehoumaki’s extra long compared to normal sushi, and filled with ‘lucky’ ingredients, like egg and shiitake mushrooms. The tradition for ehoumaki started here, and gradually got popular across the rest of Japan.

‘Ehou’ (恵方) is the ‘lucky direction’, which changes with the final number in the year. In 2018, when we wrote this, it was south-south-east. 2019 should be east-north-east, and Olympic year 2020’s west-south-west.

It’s said that the lucky direction’s where the gods of money and happiness sit. Eat your ehoumaki facing the right way – towards the gods – for the best luck. Keep totally quiet, apart from chewing, close your eyes, and think lucky thoughts.

Double check, triple check you got that direction right first time. An ehoumaki could bring you luck for the year, but eating 2’s only gonna give you indigestion.

Seasons change, traditions stay the same

We’ll do the same to keep next year evil free – but only until 2024. From 2025, Setsubun’s moving to Feb 2nd… and staying there until 2101. Always remember to throw your beans on the right day, kids.

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