Beans, sushi and the devil

After a long, hard day at the office, Dad wearily approaches his front door. Suddenly, he is ambushed. The air is filled with chants of ‘Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!’ and he is battered by a hail of flying beans.

Uh-oh! It’s Setsubun again.

Setsubun: tradition has it that this is the eve of spring and therefore a day to celebrate the cycle of life and annual renewal. The name, rather blandly, means ‘division of the seasons’. Bad luck in the form of malicious spirits is banished from your home, and you welcome the good things that the new year is going to bring.

You could say that Setsubun is spiritual spring-cleaning.

So why pick on Dad? What has he done to deserve this assault and battery with dried soy beans?

Traditionally one member of the family — usually the father — would put on a devil costume or a devil mask to represent the spirits to be driven away: the chant of the children ‘Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!’ literally means ‘Devil go away! Luck come in!’ The custom, which is called mamemaki or ‘scattering of the beans’, was imported from China about 800 years ago. The beans, which are normally roasted soy beans, are thought to symbolise good luck, though to find out why we might have travel back in time to ask the ancient Chinese.

For many kids these days, the significance of the rituals takes second place to the opportunity to legitimately pelt their father — who has probably forgotten what day it is — with small, hard objects. After this, each member of the family will eat the same kind of beans (though presumably not ones they’ve picked off the floor), one for each year of their life plus one for luck.

The bean ceremony is not the only way of celebrating this venerable and colourful festival.

Many people will make their way to shrines to take part in larger, wilder bean-oriented food fights or string up dried sardine heads outside the house or drink ginger sake — many of these activities depend on where you live.

There is a tradition that started in Kansai that is catching on across the country. This involves eating a whole, uncut makizushi (rolled sushi, or fish and salad rolled into a tube of rice and seaweed) while facing in that year’s lucky direction — the lucky direction is another import from Chinese feng shui and will vary from year to year. Effective marketing and the opportunity to gorge yourself on one of Japan’s signature dishes in the name of good fortune has made this practice increasingly popular across the country and can be enjoyed with the family or as part of outdoor community events.

And for Dad, stuffing himself with makizushi more than makes up for the bean assault he suffered earlier in the evening