More Than Beans – Unmasking the Rituals and Symbolism of Japan’s Setsubun

Hello, this is Ayamegu(@ayakami_meguru).I will write about Setsubun this time.

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The Setsubun festival on February 3 marks the division between winter and spring in Japan. While anchored on the lunar calendar, its mix of ritual, revelry, and folklore still draw lively observance. Setsubun offers insight into changing seasons, auspicious actions, and archetypal structures underpinning Japanese worldview.

Origins and History of Setsubun

Setsubun began in China as the practice of dividing seasons into 24 sekki sub-divisions for calendar and divination purposes. This spread to Japan by the Heian Period (794–1185).

The first seasonal marker was called Spring Setsubun. Winter’s Setsubun and others followed, with special rituals evolving for each.

Buddhist temples conducted Spring Setsubun by scattering roasted beans as blessings. People believed this purified evils and misfortunes, granting a fresh start.

A folk custom of demons emerging as spring approached also became linked to Setsubun. Rituals like posting guardian talismans emerged to prevent demon entry.

As Spring Setsubun gained prominence, the mame maki bean scattering ritual took shape along with the practice of having a family member dress as an ogre to be expelled by bean throwing.

While its religious origins waned after Meiji, Setsubun continues today more as festive seasonal custom centered on homes, schools, and shrines scattering beans for luck.

Major Setsubun Rituals and Symbols

Key Setsubun traditions include:

Mame Maki Bean Scattering – Throwing roasted beans while shouting “Demons out, Luck in” to cleanse misfortune and invite fortune.

Oni Yarai Demon Expulsion – Ritual banishing of a costumed demon representing illness and hardship.

Eho Maki Fortune Paper – Auspicious decorative strips of paper hung by the door. May bear lucky symbols or calligraphy.

Sardine Heads/Holly Leaves – Eaten for their symbolic protective qualities against evil.

Soybeans – Associated with health and vitality when eaten at Setsubun. Some shrines give beans out.

Lucky Directions – Facing certain directions while scattering beans increases luck.

The rituals use potent symbols of thresholds, cleansing, expulsion and renewal to mark the pivot from winter to spring. While simplified today, the underlying worldview remains culturally meaningful.

Cultural Significance of Setsubun

Modern Setsubun preserves cultural legacy through:

  • Codified ritual structure transferring meanings across generations
  • Retention of auspicious numerology around the date 2/3
  • Seasonal focus reminding people of their place within natural cycles
  • Purification symbolism contributing to sense of renewal
  • Maintaining customs that strengthen family and community ties
  • Providing children informative cultural experiences
  • Channel for folk beliefs around demons, luck, and spiritual protection
  • Expression of uniquely Japanese agricultural metaphors and puns
  • Anchor to lunar calendar reckoning intrinsic to traditional worldviews

While stripped of overt religious overtones, Setsubun still links past and present by preserving ritual forms evolved from ancient divination practices. These embody worldviews centered on equilibrium with nature and unseen forces.

Participation also ties community members together intergenerationally through common action. Setsubun unites spiritual, seasonal, familial, and folkloric dimensions into a composite cultural experience.

Setsubun will likely persist as it meaningfully bridges old and new even in simplified, modern incarnations. The bean throwing hides structural depths.

Yokohama Convention & Visitors Bureau –
Japan Guide –