Here in Japan, the lunar new year is preceded by setsubun, a minor holiday marking the division of seasons and announcing the start of the lunar year. But unlike the major celebrations currently on-going in China and other parts of mainland Asia, the Japanese setsubun is a relatively simple holiday filled with bean-throwing, maki-sushi eating and a wee bit of merry-making.
“Bean-throwing?” you might ask. Yes, the tradition on this day is to stand in front of your doorway and thow handfuls of dried soybeans towards the northeast while chanting: “Oni wa Soto; Fuku wa Uchi”, which is generally translated “Demons get out; Good luck come in.” Then family members each eat a serving of beans equivalent to their age plus one for good luck. That is, a 5-year-old should eat 6 beans and a 60-year-old should eat 61. Children, of course, make more of a game of it — dressing in oni masks and pelting each other with candied beans. Though devilish in appearance, oni seem to be more like mischievous poltergeists.
Local Shinto shrines also participate in ritual bean-throwing. This picture was taken at Shiramine shrine, where shrine maidens, celebrities and politicians tossed beans from the walkway surrounding the main shrine. The tradition was apparently imported from China about 750~800 years ago, but originally rice was thrown as an act of purification. Later soy beans were used, since beans were thought to be better able to blind any malevalent attacking spirit, driving it away. Other protective traditions include placing a holly leaf and a dried sardine head on the gate post outside one’s home, as the sharp prickly spines of the leaf and the dried fish odor are also thought to drive away oni.
So now that 2008 is well and truly here and all the new year’s parties are over, I guess there’s nothing left to do but get on with the year and see what kind of luck 2008 will actually bring.