On February 3rd, Japan celebrated Setsubun. I got a variety of different answers about what this holiday signifies depending on who I asked about it. Put simply, it’s a holiday marking the day that spring officially begins according to the lunar calendar.
(I’ll tell you one thing, though—it is NOT spring yet!!)
As with all of my posts about specific elements of Japanese culture, I am solely basing my descriptions off of my own encounters with Japanese people in my community. One way to celebrate Setsubun is by Mame Maki, which means “the scattering of beans.” A women I give English lessons to (although her English is near perfect) told me that every year on Setsubun, she opens all the windows in her house and her and her daughter wander throughout the house throwing beans everywhere saying “out devil, out!” (In Japanese, of course.) They also say something along the lines of “good spirits in!” (She also mentioned that her husband always leaves the house during Setsubun because he doesn’t like all the yelling.) After they finish throwing the beans all over the house, they pick them up and then eat as many beans as they are old. This gives them the promise of good luck for the year.
That is just one way to celebrate Setsubun. Another way, the way I did it, is to go to a temple and attempt to catch beans as they are being thrown at you. Yuko, a woman in my town, offered to take me to the local temple to celebrate the holiday. We got there fairly early because she said it would get very busy. Eventually there were crowds of people there, all waiting to catch some beans. I really had no idea what to expect at this point. Yuko handed me a paper bag and told me to hold it above my head to help me catch the beans.
I imagined there would be a shower of tiny beans coming over the wall where a group of men had lined up. I wondered if it would hurt if the beans hit me. What kind of beans were they, anyway? Cooked? Uncooked? Kidney? Pinto? Black?
The men behind the wall announced that there would be four rounds of bean throwing. If your beans had a number on them, it would mean that you won a prize. Now I was even more confused. How did they get a number on the beans? I decided they must be uncooked and they wrote on the beans with a permanent maker.
The people began to get antsy. Many of them started to push their way to the front. “Be careful,” warned Yuko. “They will push and maybe you’ll fall down.”
WHAT??!! I thought. And I looked at her. She is in her sixties, a tiny woman even by Japanese standards. I hoped she wouldn’t get knocked over!
The men were ready to start throwing the beans!
I decided to try and video the event. I figured I could hold my ground and hold my phone above my head to tape. I was really, really wrong, as you can see in this video clip here.
That’s all I could get on film because it really was that crazy. Everyone was pushing and screaming and knocking into anyone and everyone. Older women and men like Yuko were being elbowed and jostled, but in fairness the older men and women were elbowing and jostling everyone else, too. It was absolute madness. I have lived in Japan for six months now and I have NEVER seen ANYONE act this aggressive. To be honest, I was truly scared. I just kept wondering what if someone fell over and no one noticed??
Needless to say, my paranoia did not help me catch any beans. I also soon realized that the beans were packaged into tiny envelopes, they weren’t just free range beans.
I caught two envelopes.
It was embarrassing.
However, I was catching elderly people left and right as they tumbled to the ground. I pulled children up off their bottoms and held people steady. My instincts just wouldn’t allow me to really dive into the festivities.
Finally, after the fourth round of bean throwing everyone started to open their envelopes to see if they got a number. Most people around me had at least five or so envelopes. Like I said, I only had two. And I don’t even know how I got one of them. I think it by chance just fell into my bag because there were only a few seconds that I actually managed to keep the bag above my head.
By some stroke of luck, one of my envelopes actually had a number inside it. I had won a prize! I was really excited because Yuko had told me that the #1 prize was plane ticket!
Sadly, I didn’t win a plane ticket, but I did win a fukubukuro, a surprise bag.
Inside were a few Japanese snacks.
All in all, Setsubun was a pretty terrifying experience but I’m really glad I did it. Next year I’ll just make sure I wear a helmet and some knee pads.