Today, one of the Japanese teachers – たずこ – gifted me with a mask and some beans (see photo below). I thanked her for her generosity, but in my mystification as to why she’d given it to me, I asked her what it was for. “Today is せつぶん (setsubun),” she said enthusiastically. “Do you know?” I shook my head. I’ve never heard of it before! My tilted head donned with a smile clearly told たずこ that I wanted to know all about it. So, she delineated this せつぶん business with the masks and beans she’d given me.
せつぶん is a cultural and religious (especially in Buddhism and Shintoism) holiday observed in Japan, and is translated as: day before the beginning of spring or holiday at the end of winter (depending on what translation app or device you use), but it literally means “seasonal division.” This is somewhat rendered as a “New Year’s Eve” that’s ritualized by scattering beans (known as まめまき – mamemaki) to cleanse the former year of evil spirits and to keep them out in the coming year (hence why this custom is also known as bean-throwing day as beans are thought to be symbols of purification; likewise, it is also customary to eat roasted soybeans to bring in luck); or as たずこ put it: “to keep the devil out and to bring good fortune or happiness into the home.” In Japanese: Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi – おに は そと、ふく は うち。 That’s why at grocery stores, super markets, etc. you see devil masks decorating the shelves or being sold as this is exactly the spirit that is to be driven away. たずこ recommended that a friend of mine wear the mask (that she gave me) while I playfully throw beans at him/her (or vice versa) as I chant “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” to roleplay this custom as done in official bean-throwing festivals or ceremonies. Or, that I throw beans out my door as I chant the aforementioned, slamming the door shut after. Historically, this was a Chinese custom introduced to Japan in the eighth century. せつぶん is celebrated annually on the third of February, during which many temples and shrines all over Japan hold bean-throwing ceremonies and festivals. Many people go in hopes of receiving good fortune, or some simply perform the ritual themselves at home.
Lastly, eating a long, uncut sushi roll or eho-maki in Japanese (see picture below) in silence “facing the year’s lucky compass direction (determined by the zodiac symbol of that year)” is customary during せつぶん, according to Japan’s foodie websites.
So, in my effort to culturally immerse myself, I did what たずこ suggested: me and a new friend of mine took turns wearing the devil mask as we threw beans at each other while chanting “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” and ate our long, uncut sushi roll in absolute silence facing the right direction (or whatever direction my friend was facing since he is well-versed in this custom, lol). Then, we walked to a nearby Shinto shrine to fish for any leftover beans. My friend believes that this will bring him good fortune, and though I do not, I was pleased to enjoy this day with him as it’s enriched my cultural experience. We capped the day by gobbling down the whole bag of roasted soybeans that たずこ gave me earlier.
Naturally, today made me think of the devil described in the bible, particularly in Revelations:
“And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”
But I will save this assessment for another day. Happy せつぶん (Setsubun)!