Setsubun 節分 is an annual event held on February 3rd, and takes places on the day before what is called risshun 立春 (start of spring). It is held to herald the coming of spring and the end of winter, and in the hopes that the transition between the seasons would be smooth and peaceful. Although technically, February is still considered to be in the winter season, the Lunar New Year (or kyushogatsu 旧正月 in Japanese) takes places around this period of time. Therefore, even after the Japanese adopted the Gregorian calendar, the setsubun tradition remains intact.
So what do the Japanese do during setsubun?
They do a role-play of sorts, and the exact procedure depends on who are doing it, and where they are doing it. But in general, the participants are divided into two groups: the human group, and the devil group. The humans would standby in a room, armed with bags of roasted soy beans (yes, they’re real, and edible. Not to mention delicious…). At a separate location, the devils would wear a mask, and perhaps with a “weapon” of sorts, like a baseball bat. When everyone is ready, the devils would “invade” the room, snarling and gesturing angrily at the humans. The humans would throw the beans at the devils, shouting “oni wa soto” 鬼は外、福はうち ( lit. “devils outside, good luck inside”. Its actual meaning is closer to “Get the hell outta here, ya big, bad devils! Come on in, good luck!”) at the same time. The devils would be scared off by the beans, and run away in defeat. Sounds fun? It is!
Where do the Japanese people do this role-play, then? At home, at shrines and less commonly, at elementary schools. At home, a member of the household (usually an adult), acts as the devil, while the humans are acted by the others (usually the kids). Not everyone enjoys it though – there have been on occasion where the very small kids get too scared stiff by the devils (the masks must be really scary-looking) to attack them, turning into a helpless ball of tears.
Shrines are lively during setsubun, as it is attended by a sizeable number of people, so the atmosphere is pretty festive. At schools, the male teachers and older kids role-play as the devils, “invading” upon the rest of the school during lunch time… a perfect opportunity for students to assault teachers they do not like and get away with it, which is perhaps why not many schools hold this “party”.
Why are beans used as ammo? Well, beans are supposed to have some sort of spiritual power, and are said to be able to “chase away” disasters, bad luck and the like. Devils, being bad guys (naturally), represent these negative forces.
Apparently, the roasted soybeans also have a different sort of power, because after the devils have been chased away, everyone - including those who had role-played as the devils - eat the rest of the beans that were not thrown (for obviously hygienic reasons, the beans that were thrown are not consumed). If you eat the number of beans that corresponds to your age (for example, if you’re 20 years old, you should eat 20 beans), you will not become sick.
The custom of setsubun originated during some time in the Muromachi era (1337 to 1573). The people at the time believed that misfortunes such as sicknesses, fires, earthquakes and so on were caused by devils… and you know the rest of the story.
A lesser known fact about setsubun is that on that day, it is also customary to skewer a sardine’s head with the branch of a holly tree, and hang it on the door or under the eaves. This is done in order to keep out misfortune and other negative forces.
Are setsubun practices superstitious? Perhaps. Do the Japanese people seriously believe that their activities during setsubun actually help to drive away negative forces and bring in positive ones? Most likely not. But is setsubun fun? Hell yeah! And that's all that matters...