When I came home from work three days ago my girlfriend greeted me at the door and handed me a bag of peanuts. Then she opened all the windows in the home. Next she told me I needed to shout Oni wa soto (鬼は外, “Oni go out!”) and throw a peanut into the room. Once I finished she would do the same while shouting Fuku wa uchi (福は内, “Blessings come in!”). This procedure would be repeated in every other room of our apartment. Once we finished, we picked up all the peanuts and put them back into our bag.
Soon after was dinner and she handed me a giant maki, a so called ehōmaki (恵方巻). We faced south-south-east and then had to eat them without talking and in one sitting. After we finished the rest of the lunch, we ate most of the peanuts.
It was the first time for me to do this procedure and I was caught more or less off guard. So what was it about?
The term setsubun (節分) means the “last day of the season” and is today mainly used for the last day of the time of extreme cold (大寒), or winter’s end as we would call it. In the Japanese lunar calendar, this is the 3rd or 4th of February.
The day is used as an opportunity to chase away the oni (鬼) that may be hiding in one’s house and for inviting luck (fuku, 福). Oni are demons or ogres that are usually related to bad or evil things and therefore not wanted in one’s home. Fortunately it seems like they are allergic to soy beans, which is why people throw them at them in order to chase them out of the house, through the previously opened doors and windows.
However, since throwing food is considered wasteful, peanuts are often thrown as a replacement since they have a shell and can be picked up again (oni don’t like them as well). In households with kids, usually one parent dresses up with an oni mask so that the kids can throw the beans or peanuts at them and eat some in the process..
During the procedure of cleaning the house of oni, one should eat the number of beans equal to one’s age plus one. This is so that one’s next year shall become a lucky one as well.
The concept of eating ehōmaki on setsubun originated from the region around Ōsaka. They are bigger than normal maki and should contain seven ingredients, matching the number of the deities of good fortune.
In the 90s ehōmaki became available in convenience stores throughout Japan and sale was supported by advertisement campaigns. Since then it has become a popular food for setsubun. However when consuming ehōmaki it is important to face a certain “lucky direction” (ehō, 恵方, hence the name ehōmaki). This direction changes every year, depending on the year’s zodiac symbol (e. g. next year it will be north-north-west). While eating the maki in silence and without stoping, one can wish for whatever one desires for the next year.
Public setsubun celebrations are held throughout Japan with celebrities and popular sportsmen attending and throwing beans and gifts. Most famous is the celebration at senso-ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, with thousands of people attending.
Now you are informed for the next year, as am I. I wish you a lucky spring season.