節分 – The Japanese Setsubun Festival

Setsubun is a Japanese festival to celebrate the coming of Spring. It falls on February 3, which should be easy for Americans to remember as the day after Groundhog Day. For non-Americans among Tachiai readership, let’s just say Groundhog Day is a great movie by Bill Murray and leave it at that.*

The ritual at the center of setsubun is the bean throwing, mamemaki (豆撒き), shown here in this tweet found by Herouth (@SumoFollower).

Yes, as Herouth pointed out, that’s Harumafuji front-and-center. For those with the volume up, you can hear a voice over the loudspeaker beckoning, “Fuku wa uchi!” This is an entreaty to bring good luck. “福は内” Sumo fans will recognize both of the kanji in this saying. 内 is the character for “inside,” and is used in Makuuchi (幕内), the upper division in professional sumo. Marunouchi is the neighborhood of downtown Tokyo near the Imperial Palace, many high end malls and banking offices. 福 is the first kanji in Fukuoka, which is not only the location of the November tournament but also the surname of Okinoumi and Terutsuyoshi. The character is also used in the shikona of several wrestlers.

However, in this Isegahama video they’re missing a crucial element to the mamemaki, yelling at the devil to kick him out: “ONI WA SOTO!” (鬼は外) Oni, 鬼, is the character for devil. 外 means “out” and when combined with other characters is read as “gai,” like gaijin/gaikokujin for foreigner. Everyone in Tachiai-land needs to make up for the oversight of Isegahama-beya by throwing beans at the devil and yelling, “Oni wa soto!” We don’t want any more sumo scandals and Isegahama has been put through far too much punishment for neglecting to do it.

Usually, the bean that gets thrown is dried soybean but in northern areas, like Hokkaido, they use shelled peanuts. We have to use peanuts this year because our local Japanese grocery store ran out of dried beans. There’s a standard paper pack that many people buy nowadays, in a square paper box. You’ll recognize the paper box as looking like the wooden box you drink sake from. In the tweet below, you can see the Taka twins have a couple of the good wooden shot glasses.

At home, someone puts on an oni mask and runs around while the others chuck beans at the devil, yelling “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Pictures, and maybe video featuring yours truly, will come out tonight in a later update.) Now that we’ve thrown a bunch of perfectly good beans around the house, “what do we do with them, now?” you may ask. Well, you eat them, of course. The kids get off easy because you’re supposed to eat one more than your age. So the kids will eat a handful while my wife and I will have to eat several (boxes) more. Since we’re doing peanuts this year, I’m counting the nuts inside as two (occasionally three). Otherwise I would eat far too many…which in Japan eating too many beans can lead to acne or bloody noses, and we don’t want that.

Tachiai Prepares for Setsubun

Another decoration is to put a stick with spiky, holly-like, leaves and a dead fish head. This is a step too far in our household. Apparently this keeps bad spirits away. Many times the ritual is performed at shrines and they also omit the “oni wa soto” part because bad spirits aren’t there to begin with, so why should they? Isegahama should not be so cocky. I’d have sardine heads on every window and throw beans at anything that moves.

In the Kansai region, around Osaka and Kyoto, they started another ritual which is to eat “eho maki,” which is an uncut maki sushi roll. 恵方巻 巻 is the character for roll. 方 (ho) is the character for direction and 恵 (e) is the character for blessing. The sushi roll has seven ingredients for good luck. Don’t talk, make a wish, look in the direction corresponding to the year of the zodiac (this year is in the south south east), and chow down on the uncut sushi roll. My wife has never done it because she’s from Tokyo but we’re going to try this year. Twitter user @ata_keisuke saw this monster ehomaki in his grocery store.

*It comes to my attention that Groundhog Day is now a musical which debuted in London last year and will be coming to Broadway in April. I would be a harsh critic because that was a fantastic movie, one of the few I grew up with which has not been completely ruined in light of the #MeToo revelations. (RIP Bond) Despite some libelous rumors non-Americans may have heard, Groundhog Day is NOT a day where Americans brave the freezing cold to pull a big rat from his hole and wonder whether he saw his shadow. It is just a good movie. Pure Hollywood fiction.

9 thoughts on “節分 – The Japanese Setsubun Festival

  1. Note: the Isegahama mame-maki – like most rikishi mame-maki that floated around on Twitter today – took place in a shrine as well. That’s why there were no oni and no banishment of oni. The shrine is the usual one the Isegahama gang visits – the Kanto Izumo shrine (a branch-off of the Shimane Izumo Grand Shrine).

    • If they’d had it at Tomioka Hachimangu, both the heya and the shrine could have used the banishment of oni.

  2. Wait… what? Is that short video from 2018? With Harumafuji? So confused.

    Also, yes, USA guilty as charged w/groundhog day. Kind of nationally embarrassing. But a fine film, as is Lost in Translation.

    • Yes, yes. Harumafuji participated in the mame-maki yesterday. It even made the official press, which reported he looked serene, asked the reporters how they were, but playfully refused to answer personal questions. Fans shook hands with him and asked him to take photos together with them. He is still popular.

  3. Sorry but I didn’t understand how you can eat the monster uncut Maki without cutting it? is everyone supposed to shove their face into it and take a bite?


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