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Setsubun: The End of Winter

by: Reiko Nishioka, Director of Education

A demon is the symbol of an evil spirit and we throw beans (soybeans) to drive away the evil spirit. Men who were born in a year with the same sign as the zodiac animal for the current year serve as bean-throwers.

On February 3rd or 4th (depending on the year), the Japanese celebrate setsubun, the end of winter, with a ritual known in English as the “Bean-Throwing Ceremony.” “Bean-Throwing Ceremony” sounds comical and childish, however, the setsubun ritual has a long history. The first recorded setsubun ritual was in A.D. 706, more than a thousand years later year, Hokusai (Ukiyo-e artist 1760-1849) illustrated a man throwing beans at a demon.

What does setsubun mean?  (setsu) and (bun) means division and setsubun means “division of seasons.” Literally, setsubun occurs four times a year, but only one, the end of winter, is traditionally celebrated.


Why is February 3rd or 4th considered the end of winter?
 Until December 2, 1873 the Japanese used the old calendar system. On the next day all Japanese switched to the Gregorian calendar. You cannot imagine the confusion. The date of setsubun is still determined by using the old calendar.

What is the relationship between setsubun and a demon? My grandmother frequently said that we often get colds between the seasons. In olden days, the Japanese believed that demonic spirits would sneak into you or your house.

Why we throw beans at a demon?  A demon is the symbol of an evil spirit and we throw beans (soybeans) to drive away the evil spirit. I am sure that before beans an arrow was used for the ceremony. Likewise, a branch with a fish head is also placed at the front entrance to stop evil an evil spirit from coming in the house. In 1447, the record says that people scattered beans, shouting, “In with fortune! Out with demons!”  We still say the same words when we throw beans. Afterwards we eat the same number of beans as your age plus one bean to receive a healthy and happy year. For eating purpose, roasted soybeans are used.

Who gets to play the part of the demon?  When I was little, my father put on a Japanese red devil mask and my sister and I threw beans at him and shouted “In with fortune! Out with demons!”  Setsubun was the only day I could throw beans at my father. Temples and shrines in Japan have a setsubun ritual event. Men who were born in a year with the same sign as the zodiac animal for the current year serve as bean-throwers. In this event, people who gather at temple/shrines are blessed by throwing beans but not chased! 

I hope readers now have an idea of the setsubun ritual, bean-throwing ceremony.

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