Setsubun is a Japanese holiday which takes place the day before Spring in Japan (the next one will be the 2nd of Feburary 2021). On this holiday, the Japanese believe that the spirit world is closest to our world. One activity during the holiday is called mamemaki, this is where the children are given the opportunity to scare the demons out of their house. During mamemaki, a parent will put on an oni mask to represent the demons and they scare their children. The children then fend off the demons by throwing soy beans (mame)! This is still a popular Japanese tradition in the household, but many people attend a shrine or temple where mamemaki takes place as part of their spring festival.
As mentioned the name Setsubun literally means ‘seasonal division’, but usually the term refers to the spring Setsubun, properly called Risshun (立春) celebrated yearly on February 2nd as part of the Spring Festival (春祭, haru matsuri). In its association with the Lunar New Year, spring Setsubun can be and was previously thought of as a sort of New Year’s Eve, and so was accompanied by a special ritual to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away disease-bringing evil spirits for the year to come. This special ritual is called mamemaki (豆撒き, “bean scattering”). Setsubun has its origins in tsuina (追儺), a Chinese custom introduced to Japan in the eighth century.
Around the 13th century it became a custom to drive away evil spirits by the strong smell of burning dried sardine heads, the smoke of burning wood and the noise of drums. While this custom is not popular anymore, a few people still decorate their house entrances with fish heads and holly tree leaves in order to deter evil spirits from entering.
In modern days, the most commonly performed setsubun ritual is the throwing of roasted beans around one’s house and at temples and shrines across the country. When throwing the beans, you are supposed to shout “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Devils out, happiness in”). Afterwards you should pick up and eat the number of beans, which corresponds to your age.
Another widespread custom is the eating of Eho-maki (fortune rolls) which are futo-maki (thick sushi rolls) eaten on the night of Setsubun. Eho-maki is the staple of Setsubun joy and is a tradition that is said to have long been handed down mainly in the Kansai area. In recent years, this sushi roll is popular not just in Kansai but throughout all of Japan and the number of people making their own ehomaki from their favorite recipes is increasing. One is supposed to eat the roll without talking, while facing the lucky direction of the year.
As all traditional festivals, setsubun is celebrated in many variations throughout the country.