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Setsubun (Bean-Throwing Festival)

Type of Holiday: Folkloric, Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: February 3
Where Celebrated: Japan
Symbols and Customs: Bean Throwing
Related Holidays: Lemuralia


At one time the Japanese believed that the new year started when the season changed from winter to spring. The first day of spring, according to the ancient Japanese lunar calendar, fell on February 4, and Setsubun, also known as the BeanThrowing Festival, has been celebrated since that time on February 3, or the eve of the first day of the new year.

Setsubun is a holiday that commemorates seasonal change. Since ancient times people in all parts of the world have honored the changing of the seasons. Many cultures divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, and marked these points of the year at or near the summer and winter solstices, during which light and warmth began to increase and decrease, respectively. In pre-industrial times, humans survived through hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices, which depend on the natural cycle of seasons, according to the climate in the region of the world in which they lived. Thus, they created rituals to help ensure enough rain and sun in the spring and summer so crops would grow to fruition at harvest time, which was, in turn, duly celebrated. Vestiges of many of these ancient practices are thought to have survived in festivals still celebrated around seasonal themes.

The rituals associated with Setsubun focus on bidding farewell to winter and welcoming the approach of spring. People gather at shrines or temples where local dignitaries-or, in some cases, well-known celebrities such as athletes, actors, politicians, or sumo wrestlers-throw dried beans at the crowd and shout their good wishes. Before any beans are thrown, the individuals who will participate are blessed inside the shrine by monks; after this blessing, the chief monk of the shrine goes out and throws the first beans to the people. Those who catch the beans thrown by celebrities often keep them for the entire year as good luck charms, and some hold out their hats to catch as many as possible.

The Japanese throw fistfuls of beans in their homes as well, calling out Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi or "Devils go out! Come in, good luck!" The bean-thrower or tosh- iotoko is traditionally someone who was born in a particular "animal" year according to the Chinese calendar-for example, the Year of the Rat or the Year of the Monkey. But nowadays, it is usually the head of the household. The bean-thrower aims particularly at the dark corners of rooms, where the evil spirits of winter may still be lurking.

To keep the festivities under control, each person is supposed to throw one bean for each year that has passed since his or her birth, plus an extra bean for the coming year. It is also an old custom to eat as many beans as the years one has lived in order to ward off bad luck. Some people decorate their doorways with sardine heads, believing that devils don't like their smell, and with branches, to poke out the devils' eyes.


Bean Throwing

The throwing of beans at Setsubun is symbolic of sowing or scattering seeds in the spring, an activity that was traditionally believed to cast out the devils that had caused bad luck in the preceding year.


Buell, Hal. Festivals of Japan. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1965. Helfman, Elizabeth. Celebrating Nature: Rites and Ceremonies Around the World. New York: Seabury Press, 1969. Setsubun

Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Thurley, Elizabeth. Through the Year in Japan. London: Batsford Academic and Educational, 1985. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


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Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Setsubun (Bean-Throwing Festival)

February 3 or 4
Setsubun is a ceremony observed in all major temples throughout Japan to mark the last day of winter according to the lunar calendar. People throng temple grounds where the priests or stars such as actors and sumo wrestlers throw dried beans to the crowd who shout, "Fortune in, goblins out!" Some people also decorate their doorways with sardine heads, because the evil spirits don't like their smell. Beans caught at the temple are brought home to drive out evil there.
Japan Information Network, Japan Center for Intercultural Communications
2-7-7 Hirakawacho
Tokyo, 102-0093 Japan
81-3-3263-5041; fax: 81-3-3230-4107
AnnivHol-2000, p. 19
BkFest-1937, p. 196
BkHolWrld-1986, Feb 3
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 541
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 111
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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