Setsubun: The driving away of ogres and evil spirits in rituals symbolism of beans and fish

The beginning of spring, known as “setsubun” is recognized at shrines and temples, but is not really considered a national holiday. The festival, held at the beginning of February, marks the beginning of spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar. For a long time, not only did this holiday recognize the beginning of spring, but it was also seen as a time for the Japanese people to drive out evil spirits. In earlier times, people would hang up dried fish, and chant with drums in order to drive out the evil spirits. Now, while this custom is rarely practiced, Japanese people do perform a similar ritual of throwing around roasted beans and shouting away at the evil spirits.

Setsubun means “Seasonal Division” and today, setsubun refers to the day before spring. However, the term  used to refer to the day prior to the first day of spring, summer, autumn, and winter (see the Encyclopedia of Shinto for details of how the calendrical calibrations of the nijūshi-sekki (“twenty-four seasonal divisions”) of the celestial longitude and their alignment with the seasons.

According to the solar calendar, setsbun falls on February 3 or 4. At shrines, setsubun events are called setsubunsai. Setsubun generally always precedes the lunar New Year, and in the ancient ideal was often actually referred to as New Year’s Eve. In 2008, solar and lunar cycles coincided enough to make the ideal almost real in that February 4th marked Risshun (Spring Begins), and February 7th was the actual lunar New Year in both China and Japan.

Setsubun rituals include tsuina and mame-maki (bean-scattering), also known as mame-uchi.

Tsuina, also referred to by other names like “oniyarai,” is an exorcism rite in which participants address words to kami (saimon) then, armed with peach bow-and-arrows and clubs, chase away figures dressed in demon masks in order to drive out the pestilence and other disasters the were believed to carry. Introduced from Tang China, tsuina was originally held on the eve of the New Year.

Mame-maki, the custom of scattering roasted beans to expel evil spirits, seems to have begun in the Muromachi Period (1392-1573). Although members of the court and upper classes maintained a distinction between tsuina at the end of the year and bean-throwing at setsubun, commoners in many locations often blended the two customs.

There was also a custom known as yaikagashi wherein the heads of sardines were stuck on holly branches and hung over doorways to drive out the demons. / On the night of Setsubun, many Japanese will decorate a holy tree in front of their houses with a head of a sardine, a clove of garlic, or an onion. Such talismans are designed to keep the oni away as the New Year approaches (though the neighbor’s cat may not be so intimidated). Oni are said to be stung by the leaf of the holy tree (a vitalistic Shinto symbol in its own right) and thus keep their distance from the home for the coming year.

Setsubun has been celebrated in many ways, but perhaps the most common custom found throughout Japan is the traditional Mame Maki or the scattering/throwing of beans (mame) to chase away the evil oni (ogres, evil spirits, as depicted in the illustration which heads this article). In some ritual forms, the Toshi Otoko [literally “year man” but referring either to the “man of the house” or to men who are born in the animal sign of the coming year (rabbit for the year 2011)] will throw mame within the house or at someone perhaps dressed as oni and repeat the saying Oni wa Soto; Fuku wa Uchi (Get out Ogre! Come in Happiness!). After the ritual throwing of the beans, family members may then pick up the number of beans corresponding to their age; eating these brings assurance of good fortune in the coming year. These days, of course, it is not uncommon to see children dressed in masks of oni, others madly throwing beans, and all gleefully shouting for evil to hit the road. Prominent temples in Japan may also find monks or celebrities showering large crowds of people with mame to ward off spirits and welcome the renewal of the coming New Year.

Several stories relate to the origin of throwing beans at Setsubun, but perhaps one of the most famous can be seen in a Kyougen (No Comedy) performed at Mibu Temple in Kyoto. Roughly translating (and perhaps with a bit of poetic license) the plot of this play goes something like this: One day an ogre disguised himself and came to the house of an old widow. He possessed a magic mallet, and with it, he fashioned a beautiful kimono. Temptation got the best of the old widow, and she succumbed to its beauty. She plotted to steal it away from the ogre by getting him drunk. Not satisfied with just the kimono, she thought she would get the magic mallet as well. Surprised by the abrasive greed of the old woman, the ogre revealed his true self. So scared, the old widow got hysterical and starting throwing the first thing handy, a bunch of beans she had on hand. They must have hurt, because the ogre fled the scene leaving the widow without her greedy desires but nonetheless wiser and healthier.

In more ancient times, with a Chinese based lunar calendar superimposed on indigenous ritual, the seasonal significance of Setsubun was more pronounced, incorporating traditional values of lineality, optimism, and vitality in ritual behavior and in ritual objects themselves. Beans, seeds, the source of life… rice rolled in seaweed, fruits of land and sea… all used to ward off coming evil and insure future productivity… objects whose ingestion assured vitality and purification.

Other celebrations of Setsubun involve eating Nori Maki, a special sushi roll. Particularly in Western Japan, many may face a “lucky direction” (in geomantic form) and try to eat the entire sushi roll without saying a word. Those who are able to accomplish this feat (the roll is about 20 cm long) are promised luck with their business, longevity, and freedom from illness. In Osaka, where this tradition appears to have originated, some people say the practice started when a young Geisha ate the tasty delicacy in order to assure she would be with her favorite lover in the coming year. In some areas, the Nori Maki is made with a stuffing of seven colors which represent Shichi Fukujin (seven gods of happiness). These gods can be seen in the illustration of “happiness beans” below.

For the connection between Beans, evil spirits and demons – see:

Setsubun, Oni Out, Happiness In

Encylopedia of Shinto

Japanese holidays

February 3rd, the day before the calendric beginning of spring, is famous for bean-throwing festival, named “Setsubun”. Why do people throw beans?

Excerpted from the book”Shinto” is the answer below:


In the ancient times in Japan, “Setsubun” used to be practised 4 times a year, i.e. the day before the beginning of each season. However, people threw rice and not beans at “Setsubun” initially. Throwing rice means to get rid of the impurities and uncleaness of the past season.

Chinese folk customs were imported to Japan during Nara Period. “Tsuina”(some of the ceremony to drive away evil spirits), was a similar ceremony to the throwing of rice, and was assimilated and became naturalized as the ancient Japanese “Setsubun” custom. Only Tsuina now involved beans because beans were associated with demons’ eyes and were believed to hit demon’s eyes.

Beans means “Mame” in Japanese. In a sort of jeu de mots where “Ma” means “demon”(Mara), “Mame” thus implied “demon’s eyes” and at the same time,  “Me” turns into the meaning of “extermination” in Chinese character.

This is thus the origin of “Setsubun”. People believe “Mame” beans have the magical power to exterminate demons. Nowadays, this custom is practised with the enactment of costumed demon ogres appearing in shrines and temples as on-lookers throw beans(mame) saying “Out with you Demon! Come in good luck!”


Diffused origins from Central Asia:

The idea of pelting demons with beans appears to be a very ancient belief that diffused across Eurasia both eastwards and westwards, together the concept of ogres and demons, or possibly from the Near East to Europe and Asia:

Symbolism of beans:

Beans. Beans have been an important food source for many cultures, except for the ancient Egyptians, who thought beans were too sacred to eat. Many Native Americans—from the Iroquois of the Northeast to the Hopi of the Southwest—hold festivals in honor of the bean. Europeans traditionally baked bean cakes for a feast on the Christian holiday of Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. Some ancient lore linked beans with the dead. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras thought that the souls of the dead resided within beans, while the Romans dreaded the lemures—the evil spirits of the dead—who brought misfortune on a home by pelting it with beans at night.” Source: Plants in Mythology

The origin of Jack and the Beanstalk and the magic beans is unclear. However, Sir Francis Palgrave once wrote that it was most likely that the tale arrived with the Viking boats. The earliest printed edition which has survived is the 1807 book The History of Jack and the Bean Stalk, printed by Benjamin Tabart, although the story was already in existence sometime before this(with a Jewish version in existence ) as a burlesque of the story entitled The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean was included in the 1734 second edition of Round About Our Coal-Fire.

In the classic version of the tale, the giant is unnamed, but many plays based on the story name him as Blunderbore; a giant of that name also appears in Jack the Giant Killer.

The giant’s “Fee! Fie! Foe! Fum!” was included in William Shakespeare‘s King Lear.

The custom of Mamemaki as recorded during the Muromachi period. It is usually performed by the toshiotoko (年男) of the household (the male who was born on the corresponding animal year on the Chinese zodiac), or else the male head of the household. Roasted soybeans(called “fortune beans” (福豆 fuku mame)) are thrown either out the door or at a member of the family wearing an Oni (demon or ogre) mask, while the people say “Demons out! Luck in!” (鬼は外! 福は内! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!)and slam the door, although this is not common practice in households anymore and most people will attend a shrine or temple’s spring festival where this is done. The beans are thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away the evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health with them. Then, as part of bringing luck in, it is customary to eat roasted soybeans, one for each year of one’s life, and in some areas, one for each year of one’s life plus one more for bringing good luck for the year to come.

While the practice of eating makizushi on Setsubun is historically only associated with the Kansai area of Japan, the practice has become popular nationwide due largely to marketing efforts by grocery and convenience stores.

In the Tohoku area of Japan, the head of the household (traditionally the father) would take roasted beans in his hand, pray at the family shrine, and then toss the sanctified beans out the door.

Nowadays peanuts (either raw or coated in a sweet, crunchy batter) are sometimes used in place of soybeans.

There are many variations on the famous Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi chant. In the Nihonmatsu area of Fukushima Prefecture, the chant is shortened to “鬼 外! 福は内!” (Oni soto! Fuku wa uchi!). And in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, people chant “鬼の目玉ぶっつぶせっ!” (Oni no medama buttsubuse!), lit. “Blind the demons’ eyes!”.

At Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines all over the country, there are celebrations for Setsubun. Priests and invited guests will throw roasted soy beans (some wrapped in gold or silver foil), small envelopes with money, sweets, candies and other prizes. In some bigger shrines, even celebrities and sumo wrestlers will be invited; these events are televised nationally. Many people come, and the event turns wild, with everyone pushing and shoving to get the gifts tossed from above.

It is customary now to eat uncut makizushi called Eho-Maki (恵方巻) (lit. “lucky direction roll”) in silence on Setsubun while facing the yearly lucky compass direction, determined by the zodiac symbol of that year. Charts are published and occasionally packaged with uncut makizushi during February. Some families put up small decorations of sardine heads and holly eaves on their house entrances so that bad spirits will not enter. Ginger sake (生姜酒 shōgazake?) is customarily drunk at Setsubun Source: Wikipedia

For further reading on the Roman beliefs on lemures and the practice of pelting them with beans, see:

2 thoughts on “Setsubun: The driving away of ogres and evil spirits in rituals symbolism of beans and fish

  1. […] Kumamoto, on the southwestern island of Kyushu, a man dressed as a namahage enters a home during setsubun, traditionally the day before the start of spring and now observed each year on February […]

  2. […] Kumamoto, on the southwestern island of Kyushu, a man dressed as a namahage enters a home during setsubun, traditionally the day before the start of spring and now observed each year on February […]

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