Demon-Chasing Day 2023 ~ Setsubun ~ Festivals of Japan

in GEMS2 months ago

Are you ready to rid your home of demons? Are you ready for Spring to finally get here? Are you in the mood to eat sushi and/or soybeans? If any of those sound like a good time, this post is for you! Let's talk about Setsubun (節分)! It's tomorrow! Time to prepare for the big event!

Setsubun (節分) is a Japanese festival that takes place on the day before the start of spring on the old Japanese calendar, which is usually on Feb 2nd or 3rd. This year (2023) it is on the 3rd. It has some fun traditions that go along with it, such as throwing soy beans at poor dad or overeating on sushi while quietly facing a lucky direction and wondering how it can possibly be good luck. It is a day to clean away all the evil of the former year, to chase away all evil spirits, and get good luck for the year.

Let's go over all of these, starting with mamemaki (豆撒き), or bean scattering. Kids love this.

Demon Chasing

This is the main event so let's start with it first.

Roasted soybeans are gathered and thrown around the house and out the windows. Why soybeans? Demons can not stand the smell evidently, or so it is said, so this is the ideal way to get rid of them. Supermarkets also sell peanuts instead of soybeans, I suspect because they are cheaper. Demons don't seem to like peanuts either.

When throwing the beans or peanuts, people call out "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" (鬼は外! 福は内!), which means "Demons out, luck in!". Kids really get into this. And who can blame them? It's one of the few times they are not only allowed but encouraged to throw things in the house. Once you get the demons on the run, you have to move them in the direction of the door or window and get rid of them. One old woman told me that when you throw the beans out the window, you have to be sure to slam the window shut as fast as possible so the evil spirits can not get back in!

To make the idea of chasing demons a little more fun for kids, typically the father of the house will wear an oni mask and chase them. An oni is a kind of devil or demon in Japanese mythology. Usually a little more colorful than the Western version, but otherwise similar. The children then enjoy throwing the soybeans at him and chasing him away. Yep, so I've been pelted by many soy beans in my time playing an oni for my kids on this day.

Other places that take care of kids also have fun with this. At my son's elementary school, the principle usually dresses as an oni and lets all the younger kids throw soybeans at him. At my other son's preschool they usually do the same. Last year many of the teachers also dressed as oni so there were plenty of targets for the kids.

Demons hunting for kids

Demons represent all the bad luck of the previous year, so chasing them out opens you up to getting better luck. Spring was the beginning of the year on the old calendar, so this was kind of like our English New Year's phrase Out with the old; in with the new.

Eating Your Age

After the tiring work of demon chasing, the next bit of good luck is gained by eating your age in soybeans (or peanuts). Easy enough for the kids, but the older you get, the tougher it becomes. Some areas go one more and make everyone eat their age plus one more for luck in the coming year as well. The more luck the better, I say, so why not.

mamemaki tools
By themselves they are really dry, so eating more than a few is harder than it sounds

There isn't much to this one. I've never been able to find much history behind it. I suppose it's probably as simple as people didn't want to be wasteful in the past so you eat what you threw. The idea of eating your age in beans for luck was probably just a trick by parents to get their kids to eat them.

Sushi Rolls

This one is fairly recent that it almost can't be called a tradition yet, but it does seem to be sticking around, so maybe we can say it's a modern tradition.

For this one everyone has to face a certain direction and eat a big, long sushi roll, called ehō-maki (恵方巻, "lucky direction roll"). The exact direction changes every year according to the Chinese zodiac. This year (2023) it is South-Southeast.

Besides looking in the correct direction as you eat, you are not allowed to talk while eating and once you start eating you are not allowed to pause until you finish the sushi roll. After you finish, good luck will come to you!


Specifically the sushi roll is suppose to be prepared using seven different ingredients representing the Seven Gods of Fortune (I mention them here and explain about them a little about half-way down the post). I don't know if people are strict about following this if they make it themselves at home.

This tradition started in Osaka in the 60s and stayed there for a number of years. It has since spread to much of the country due in no small part to grocery stores and sushi shops that don't mind selling more sushi rolls every February. You now will find it all over Japan, though people might still consider it a Kansai thing (the Osaka area name). Most of us don't mind eating them, so it's win-win. If we get extra luck out of the deal, that's even better!

It's silly, but it's fun.

Why Is This a Thing?

The old calendar is divided up into 24 mini seasons. It's a little tricky because while the old calendar was a lunar calendar, these seasonal divisions were based on the sun. I used to cover these in my Microseasons posts. Maybe I will again one of these days.

Anyway, Setsubun is the day before the start of spring, which is known as Risshun (立春). It doesn't match up exactly with the Lunar New Year, but it is usually pretty close and so it represents basically the same thing: New Year, fresh start. Because of that, it was long one of the most popular celebrations in Japan and is still popular today.

I mentioned above that chasing demons out of the house was basically a metaphor for chasing out the bad luck of the previous year. Well, it is, but also it was believed in the past that the New Year was the time when our world and the god world are extra close. Due to that, the demon chasing ceremony is needed to chase away any bad spirits that wander over to our world from the other.

Anyway, there you go. Even if you aren't in Japan, you can get into the spirit. Buy some soybeans and attack invisible demons hoping for good luck, the eat the beans, make a sushi roll, and hope for good luck! And celebrate because spring is on the way!!

Good luck!!

Misc info:

  • Photo 1, taken from "Japan and the Japanese illustrated", p187, by Aimé Humbert, published in 1874.
  • Photo 2, from the Hokusei manga. According to Wikipedia Japan, it is in the public domain.
  • Photo 3 (demons hunting kids) by Ryan Latta, licensed under the creative commons.
  • Photo 4 (soybeans) by Lichia Liu, licensed under the creative commons.
  • Photo 5 (ehomaki) by Sakura Chihara, licensed under the creative commons.

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Hi there! David LaSpina is an American photographer and translator lost in Japan, trying to capture the beauty of this country one photo at a time and searching for the perfect haiku.

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