Setsubun, a Day for Beans and Blue Ogres

Have you recently been welcomed at your local supermarket by a scowling but harmless-looking blue-faced ogre, perhaps with a red-faced one by its side? Have you been noticing an unusual abundance of such horned, fanged, tiger-skin-clad oni (鬼) demons in the past few weeks? You may have thought the increased presence of oni-themed decorations was a ripple-effect spilling over from the popularity of the anime movie Demon Slayer. But sightings of red and blue ogres at this time of year have nothing to do with movies. Ogres are an element of the Japanese holiday called Setsubun (節分), held around February 3 each year—in 2021, it falls on February 2—a day on which these symbols of misfortune are driven out via a bean-throwing ritual.

The ceremonies take place on a small scale in private homes, schools, and businesses, and on a larger scale in temples and shrines. You will be able to see clips of the more famous ones on the news. To chase away an ogre, you need a supply of fukumame (福豆), roasted soybeans that are often sold with a small wooden storage box and a paper ogre mask. The highlight of the day is the actual throwing of beans at an ogre-costumed person while shouting, “oni wa soto” (鬼は外, “Out with bad luck!”). This is alternated with throwing beans into the home while shouting, “fuku wa uchi” (福は内, “In with good luck!”). People of all ages participate, and children are either delighted or terrified!

The special luck-bringing menu for the occasion is makizushi (巻き寿司), rolled sushi that for this day is left long and uncut. You will find a wider than usual selection of sushi fillings, including raw and cooked fish, vegetables, and even pork cutlets! Just for this event, they are given the name “lucky direction rolls” (恵方巻えほうまき), and according to tradition, they must be eaten whole and in silence, all while facing a certain lucky direction. In 2021, the lucky direction is south by southeast, but it changes every year.

A typical side dish is grilled sardines. When you finish your fish, be sure to tack the bones up over your door, to poke any ogres who may try to enter! Then of course, you can also eat the soybeans leftover from throwing. By tradition, you should eat one bean for each year of your age, plus one. Eating more than that would tempt fate, as the superstition goes.

The characters for Setsubun mean “dividing the seasons,” and according to my mother-in-law and many in the older generation, this day marks the beginning of spring. No matter how much snow is falling on a mid-February day, they will insist that it is spring. Most sources ascribe this seasonal lag to the older lunar calendar having slowly gotten out of sync, but I like to attribute it more to positive thinking.

When early February rolls around, don’t be alarmed if you see colorful ogres walking about or being chased away by children armed with soybean projectiles. If you are feeling a bit ogreish and the thrill of a sanctioned food fight sounds appealing, why not don a mask and volunteer for a ceremony? Don’t worry, the beans are quite lightweight. If you’d rather not play the bad guy, you can still choose a treat from the rich selection of makizushi, or enjoy a healthy bean snack. Either way, I hope the ogres of 2020 are driven away and that our world is filled with good luck (fuku) in 2021!

[Image Credits: meikyun/]

Jeanette May Fukao

Jeanette May Fukao is an artist, poet, writer, and translator living in Shiga, Japan. Her paintings and poems depict microcosms of nature and life in Japan. She has lived here since the 1980s, and has a deep understanding of the culture.

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