Setsubun (節分)

Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外、福は内!) This is what you yell as you throw soybeans or peanuts at the pour guy in the ogre mask. “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” It means, “Demons out, good fortune in!” and it encapsulates the Setsubun (節分) experience.

Setsubun (節分) is the cultural holiday celebrating the last day of winter in the traditional Japanese calendar, usually landing on February 3rd or 4th. Historically, this used to be closer to when New Year’s was celebrated.  Apparently, it was thought that New Year’s was the time when the Spirit World was closest to the physical world, and therefore there would be more spirits wandering about. Since an increase of spiritual activity inherently meant a higher possibility that a malevolent spirit might mess with your stuff — or your health — people performed little rituals to ward off the bad spirits. With all the superstition and the connection to winter’s end, you could basically think of it as Groundhogs Day, only awesome.

The defining ritual of Setsubun is called mamemaki (豆まき), or “beans tossing”. It’s similar to throwing rice at a wedding, except that in this case, beans are hurled at an oni (鬼 – ogre or demon). To accomplish this, someone has to play the role of the oni, either by wearing a mask, or donning a full costume. The idea is to expel the ogre from your house, and in turn, scare off any evil spirits. Typically dried soybeans are thrown, because nothing scares off the demons like projectile legumes.

The dried soybeans tossed at the oni are called fukumame (福豆), literally meaning “fortune beans”. This is where the new phrase comes in: “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外、福は内!–  Demons out, good fortune in!) In Hokkaido, mamemaki is a little different than in the rest of Japan. Instead of dried soybeans, in Hokkaido, unshelled peanuts are used. This is because part of the ritual involves eating beans in number equal to the years of your age. In Hokkaido, all the soybeans would get lost in the snow, so the clever northerners used peanuts, which could be easily collected afterwards. Either that, or Hokkaido Oni have a lethal peanut allergy.


On Friday February 3rd, Setsubun was upon us.  I had been looking forward to it since New Year’s, when Hiroko had told me a little about the custom.  Being a fan of Japanese folklore, I’m easily fascinated by things like oni (鬼) and tengu (天狗), kitsune (狐 – fox) and tanuki (狸 – raccoon dog). In recognition of the day, the school lunch included a little pack of soybeans with a cartoon oni on the bag.

That morning at the junior high, Yusuke explained a few more details of the holiday. Apparently there’s a Setsubun custom in which a special makizushi (巻寿司 – sushi roll) is typically eaten. The roll is called ehoumaki (恵方巻 – literally, “lucky direction roll”), and like all of the other customs, it’s supposed to bring you good luck. Ehoumaki is a fat sushi roll, which you are supposed to eat uncut. It’s supposed to contain seven ingredients, because seven is a lucky number in reference to the Shichi-fuku-jin (七福神), the “Seven Lucky Gods” of Japanese folklore.  (These seven gods are pretty interesting, as most of them are derived from Hindu or Buddhist deities.) As the roll’s name implies, you have to face the proper “lucky direction” when you eat it, and this direction changes each year. For 2012, the lucky direction was north-north-west. Yet another rule is that the whole roll must be eaten in its entirety; otherwise it might not bring you good luck. But best part of the ehoumaki tradition is that you have to eat your fat sushi roll in complete silence; no talking until you’ve devoured that monster. If you want good luck, them’s the rules.

That afternoon I taught a class at Hizuka Elementary. When the English lesson was completed, I was surprised to discover that it was time for mamemaki (豆まき – bean tossing), and that I was invited to join in. Kazama-sensei and I both donned oni masks to play the part of the demons, and each of the nine Hizuka students got bags of unshelled peanuts. As soon as Kazama-sensei and I began our ogre-like growling and menacing posturing, the kids unleashed a legume hailstorm, pelting us mercilessly. The oni mask was simply cut out of cardboard, so it offered little protection for the direct hits that I took in the face. At least one of those kids has the makings of a Major League pitcher, I think.

After the shelling was over, everyone cracked open the peanut and enjoyed a nutty snack. The ritual is to eat one bean (in this case, peanut) for every year of your age. That meant that each student was supposed to eat 12 nuts or less, yet I was expected to eat 28 nuts. I chatted with Kazama-sensei and Susuki-sensei while eating and quickly lost count. When I headed out, Kazama gave me the cardboard oni masks as a memento, three in all.

When I got back to Bikuni, I made a pit stop at the junior high to get some lesson materials in order. Since I happened to have oni masks with me on Setsubun, I decided to put one on and wear it into the school as a joke. By an amazing stroke of luck, the Vice Principal just happened to see me coming, oni mask and all. As I opened the door of the staff entrance, I was met with a mini-barrage of beans, complete with the accompanying chant, “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” Later, when I walked into the Board of Education with the oni mask on, I didn’t get pelted, but it did give Ihara-san, Yamazaki-san, and Katsuo-san a good laugh.

That evening I was invited over to Yamazaki-san’s house for a family dinner. We had sukiyaki, one of my favorites, and I brought a bottle of awesome Italian wine as my culinary contribution. It was Terre di Trinci’s Montefalco Rosso, from Umbria. The bottle had been a gift from my Seattle soccer teammate Massi, and I had been saving it for nearly one year, waiting for the right occasion.

After dinner I booted up my laptop to show everyone the pictures of my brother’s wedding. Grandma Yamazaki had been waiting forever to see them because I was always forgetting to bring my computer with me. Yamazaki commented that I was currently looking thinner than I appeared in the wedding photos. The difference was only slight, but I attributed it to drinking less lately.

After dinner and picture show-and-tell, it was time for Setsubun’s defining ritual: mamemaki. Yamazaki wore the oni mask and I joined in with the kids in throwing peanuts at him. I particularly enjoyed shouting “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” As he was hit repeatedly with peanuts, Oni Yamazaki backed into the genkan (玄関 – entry way), and then eventually out of the house completely. To make sure the evil spirits were expelled, some nuts were also tossed out the door after him. Once that was done, everyone helped pick up the peanuts that had been scattered about the room. The family sat down on floor and each ate an age-appropriate number of beans.

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