Sunday, January 29, 2017

Setsubun: Japan's Old New Year

Most of my readers will be familiar with the celebration of Chinese New Year. The holiday falls on a different day every year, because it marks the beginning of a new new year on the Chinese lunar calendar. This year, Chinese New Year fell on January 28th. Incidentally, this year is the Chinese Year of the Cock; the same as your blogger's birth year! :-)

But did you know that at one point, Japan's New Year was based on the Chinese lunar calendar?

It's true.

Up until 1873, the New Year in Japan was based on the Chinese lunar calendar, where the New Year was associated with the beginning of spring. The Japanese government officially adopted the Western calendar, and the New Year came to be celebrated on January 1st according to the Gregorian calendar thereafter.

On the eve of the New Year on the lunar calendar, the Japanese would hold purification rituals in a tradition known as "Setsubun." Setsubun (節分) is a word that means "seasonal division," in reference to the division of winter and spring. In China, the New Year Festival is known as "Chūn Jié" (春節), or "Spring Season." The Chinese character "節" is a character that means "cycle," "rhythm," "point in time," also "time of year," and implicitly "season." Incidentally, the Vietnamese celebrate their new year on the same day as Chinese New Year, where it is known as "Tết," which itself comes from "節."

"Setsubun," then, was a festival celebrated on the eve of the old lunar New Year as a purification ritual to rid the Japanese home of evil spirits and bad luck for the year to come. Since Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar, these rituals no longer coincide with the old lunar New Year, but remnants of them continue to be observed on the fixed dates of February 3rd and 4th.

The purification rituals associated with Setsubun have varied through history, and by region. A very ancient custom was to drive away evil spirits using the strong smell of burning dried sardine heads, the smoke of burning wood and the noise of drums. While this custom is no longer observed, a few people still decorate their house entrances with fish heads and the leaves of trees said to have repellent powers that ward off evil spirits.

Setsubun decoration at the door of a Japanese home

Perhaps the most common custom found throughout Japan today is mamemaki (豆撒き), or the scattering/throwing of beans (豆, mame) to chase away oni (鬼, ogres, devils, demons, etc.).

Traditionally, a member of the family wears the mask of an oni, while the toshi-otoko (年男), referring to male members of the family born in the animal sign of the coming year (Thatsa me!), or just the male head of the household (Thatsa me too!), throw(s) roasted lucky soybeans, called "fukumame" (福豆, lit. "lucky beans"), at the “oni” uttering the slogan “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外、福は内!, lit. “Demons out, good fortune in!”). Afterwards, each person picks up the number of beans that corresponds to their age  for that year and eats them. This ritual is thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health with them. Eating the beans is thought to “bringing good fortune in” for the following year.

 Kids at a kindergarten throwing beans at a "demon"

Nowadays, bean-throwing events are held at kindergartens, where children are encouraged to throw beans at teachers dressed as "demons." Prominent temples in Japan often invite celebrities, such as TV personalities and sumo wrestlers, to shower large crowds of people with beans to ward off spirits and invite good fortune for the New Year. Sometimes, along with the beans, small envelopes with money, sweets, candies and other prizes are thrown. These events are so big that they’re often broadcast on national television.

Mamemaki bean-throwing event at a large shrine

Other customs of Setsubun involve eating a special sushi roll called ehomaki (恵方巻). Particularly in Kansai, the custom is to try to eat the entire roll without saying a word, while facing the yearly "lucky direction," determined by the zodiac symbol of that year. Charts marking that direction are published, and sometimes included with the special sushi roll sold in February. It is said that if you're able to eat the entire roll, which is about 20cm in length, you'll have successful business and have a healthy New Year.

 Sometimes, people will eat ehomaki on TV.

You can buy ehomaki at almost any convenience store.