Setsubun — springtime and demons


The Setsubun festival, which is linked with risshun, the traditional start of spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar, is celebrated on the 3rd and 4th of February every year by the throwing of beans and the driving out of the demons. Setsubun is closely associated with the lunar New Year and, like so many traditional practices in Japan, was borrowed from China during the Heian Period (794-1185). According to Kansai Time Out,

Whatever the weather, Setsubun is a time for new beginnings, a time to cast out the bad and the old, and to start afresh with new hopes and good luck. Exorcism of the old demons and assurance of future good luck involves various rituals. At home, the main event revolves around mamemaki — throwing soybeans both inside and outside the house at sunset, accompanied by the chant, ‘Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi’ (Out with the demons, in with good luck). Afterwards, adults usually eat the number of beans equal to their age, plus one. All this apparently gives protection against evil spirits and provides the necessary good luck for the coming year. During the run-up to Setsubun, packets of these beans can be bought at many shops, usually supplied with a special demon (oni) mask.

I was planning on buying some beans before Setsubun so I could throw them around my house, and out into the yard too, but I didn’t end up running into any of the packets before Setsubun weekend hit full force, and by then it was too late. Instead of throwing beans I ended up meeting my friend Yoko (recently returned from England) for dinner and karaoke. Koji (in the demon mask), Mai, Ayumi, Yuta, and Yusuke joined us, and although we weren’t able to find any of the special Setsubun maki that you’re supposed to eat in order to guarantee old age we did have plenty of good food at a restaurant in the Dotombori area called Chanto, a name that can roughly be translated as “properly,” though I suppose it just doesn’t have quite the same ring in English.

As we were on our way to Chanto, we came across a small temple and a group of priests chanting Setsubun prayers around a fire. I’m not precisely sure how the practice works, but apparently you can buy small placards with prayers written on them and then the prayers are read and thrown into the fire. At Setsubon most of these prayers, as you would imagine, are prayers for good fortune. None of us ended up purchasing any praying power, but we did end up at karaoke after dinner. Singing and chanting are related, of course, and we decided to sing the demons out, rather than chant them away. I believe that my attempted rendition of Kimura Kaela‘s リルラ リルハ (“Rirura Riruha,” which is katakana for “Real Love, Real Heart”) was especially effective at driving the demons away. I think it may have driven everyone else away too, although several people were gracious enough to claim “last train” as their excuse.

Yoko looks so happy all the time that I don’t think she has any demons to drive out whatsoever — especially since she’s recently gotten a job with NHK in Wakayama, editing the local news broadcast. On the other hand, I always seem to have one noxious little oni or another taking up space around the house, and Setsubun seemed as good a time as any to extricate them.

In fact, Setsubun actually got me to thinking quite a bit about habit as a kind of demon, though not really in a moral, Judeo-Christian sense. Because of the Puritanism that undergirds so much of the U.S. cultural unconscious, most people probably associate “bad habits” with immorality. A person who engages in such “bad habits” as smoking, or drinking, or cursing, is somehow deeply morally compromised, as if there were a slight stain or smudge upon their soul. Quitting smoking, or even going to the gym everyday, or becoming a vegetarian, is thus almost always cast in the light of a kind of moral righteousness. The problem with this (false) dichotomy is that it forces the question of habits into the trap of a moral-religious language that emphasizes the rewards (or punishments) of eternal salvation (and damnation) rather than the more useful everydayness of the idea of practice. For Setsubun I decided to switch a few of my habits around — not to be a more “moral” person (I’m not in the market to stop drinking or cursing anytime soon, and coffee is a non-negotiable habit), but rather to cast off those practices that make me feel stultified, or stale, or result in that feeling of wasted days. I don’t really have any desire to become more ‘efficient’ (people that are too efficient tend to make terrible humans), but I do have a desire to make my time richer. I plan to spend less time watching bad television and more time reading good poems. I’ll spend less time wondering if anything has “happened” in the world of electronic communications and more time engaged in aesthetically productive activities. And I want to ride my bike more so I can feel wind swishes and listen to birds chirping on the horizontal axis as the Doppler effect octave-shifts their songs.

Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!


7 Responses to “Setsubun — springtime and demons”

  1. 1 K

    I love your interpretations of morality and habits. I’m glad the demons are there to help us rethink things once in a while!

  2. 2 Trane DeVore

    Yes, those clever little devils can really be helpful sometimes.

  3. 3 Nevin

    Hi Trane

    I like this blog…

    Wouldn’t mind talking offline about Boing Boing. My email address should be attached to this comment.

  4. 4 Trane DeVore

    Hey Nevin,

    Thanks for the comment, and also the kind reply to my Boing Boing comment. I completely understand and appreciate your desire to escape from the ‘weird Japan’ trope — in fact, my response was also a bit of an attempt to do the same thing. I was worried that the idea of a “curse free” society might serve to fortify stereotypes of politeness, conformity, massive amounts of decorum, etc. All of which are, of course, part of Japanese society but none of which define Japanese society as a whole. Also, all of these traits, I would argue, are often misread because of an accumulated history of mis-readings of Japanese culture that still has enormous force to this day. So clearly we’re on the same side here, just jumping in from different angles.

    BTW, I haven’t been able to find your email address. If you want to send me another email you can try via my flickr account:

  5. 5 Trane DeVore

    And for those of you wondering what this last exchange may have referred to, you can find the answer here.

  6. 6 angie

    funny i should read this today. the textbook we use in my second year junior high class (eighth grade by the american system) talks about setsubun, and we worked on that section in several of my classes this morning.

    “Why are you giving me beans?”
    “Because it’s Setsubun today. it means “Coming of Spring.”

    anyway, i was thinking about how much i love the feeling of freshness and newness that happens at the beginning of the year, and that the coming of spring is another kind of beginning — a good time to make changes and fresh starts. here’s to aimless bike rides and pleasure reading!

  7. 7 Trane DeVore

    “Why are you giving me beans?” Now that’s a mandatory piece of dialogue to know in English!

    Seriously though, I do love all of the renewal rituals in Japan as well — there don’t seem to be quite enough in the States: Oshogatsu, Setsubun, sakura season, ume viewing, rice planting festivals, etc. Even Autumn leaf viewing almost seems like a beginning rather than an ending.

    Speaking of spring, it looks like you might be down here just as all the trees are opening, so in that case we should go blossom shooting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s