Seasonal Calendar of February

In this 'Seasonal Calendar', I would like to introduce traditional Japanese seasonal events, which come down to Japanese's modern life for the time being.

This Season's Traditional Events

In Japan, a traditional Japanese event called Setsubun is celebrated annually throughout the country, around February 3rd. This month's pick up would be this Setsubun.

What is Setsubun?

Setsubun is a traditional annual event held in Japan usually around February 3rd, a day before Risshun ( literally, setting-in of spring ). In Japanese homes, people celebrate Setsubun by throwing roasted soybeans inside and outside their houses, crying out 'Oni-wa-soto, Fuku-wa-uchi! ( ogres out, good luck in )'.

This bean-throwing event is said to be done, to drive out the evil in order to keep disasters away from the house, and to invite in good luck. It is also customary to eat the beans after the throwing ceremony, since it is believed that one would be blessed with sound health that year, by eating these beans. However, since you're only allowed to eat as much beans as your age, it's always made me wish that I'd grow up quick when I was a kid.

There are also customs to set a roasted sardine head thrusted with a sprig of holly at house entrances, or at the front gates for Setsubun. This is said to be done in order to keep the evil spirits from coming inside the houses, because the strong smell of sardine was believed to be effective as a talisman against evil.

The Meaning of the Word Setsubun

The word Setsubun ( Sechi-wakare in ancient times ), is said to be a term that originally was used to indicate the day before four main seaonal turning points that came in a year, Risshun ( setting-in of spring ), Rikka ( the beginning of summer ), Risshu ( the beginning of autumn ), and Rittou ( the first day of winter ). But it is told that later it became a word that represents only the day before Risshun ( setting-in of spring ), the very first seasonal turning point of the year.

What is Risshun?

By the way, what exactly is Risshun?

Risshun is a name for the spring seasonal turning point, one of the four main seasonal turning points that come in a year. As there are four seasons in Japan, four big changes in season comes around every year, and Risshun is a name for the day that falls on the seasonal turning point, when the season changes from winter to spring.

There are twenty more other seasonal turning points relying on the movement of the sun, which all together are called 'Nijushisekki ( literally, 24 seasonal or climate turning points )'. Nijushisekki is said to have had great importance and were referred to in the agriculture based lifestyle, in the earlier times of Japanese history before the present Gregorian calendar was put to use.

Today, Nijushisekki seems that it has lost much of its imporatance in the modern lifestyle, though some of the turning points in Nijushisekki are related to traditional Japanese events, and are often brought about when speaking of seasonal topics.

The Rituals of Tsuina or Oniyarai

Setsubun is said to be another traditional Japanese annual event, that derives from a mixture of Chinese and Japanese culture.

The original ritual which later is said to have become Setsubun, was called 'Tsuina ( literally, driving away pain )' or 'Oniyarai ( literally, driving away ogres )', and was first said to be held at Court on O-misoka night in 705. ( See our O-misoka page for more details about O-misoka. ) Limited people who were allowed to go inside the Seiryouden ( literally, sacred building ) are told to have held an event, chasing around the ones who played the role of ogres with peach tree bows and reed arrows, in order to drive away the ogres which symbolized evil spirits.

This ritual of Tsuina is told to originate in ancient Chinese culture, based on the thoughts of Yin Yang and the five elements. It probably must have been brought into Japan somewhere around the middle of 6th century, when many of the other developed Chinese culture in those days, were also imported together with Buddhism. Since the famous Analects of Confucius ( around 551 B.C.- around 479 B.C. ), has it to suggest that the ritual was already held in China when it was written, it could be said that the roots of Setsubun dates back to ancient China as far as 2,600 years ago (!!).

However, at this point of the year 705, the bean-throwing custom was still not yet seen. Tsuina or Oniyarai in these days, seems that it was simply held as an year-end ceremony at Court, to drive away the evil spirits that were thought to cause sickness, disasters, coldness and darkness, by symbolizing them as ogres and driving the ogres away.

About Mamemaki ( bean-throwing )

Mamemaki ( bean-throwing ) is a custom practiced on the occasion of Setsubun, to throw beans inside and outside of houses in order to drive away the evil spirits, as well as to invite in good luck, wishing for the sound health of the family. Recently, many shrines hold a Mamemaki ( bean-throwing ) event featuring celebrities such as Sumo wrestlers, musicians and actors, which has become famous through TV news programs. Though in these events that seem to be rather commercial, the celebrities usually seem to throw something else like candies or sweets instead of beans.

To be formally practiced, first of all a wooden measure box called Isshou-Masu ( measures 1.8063 quarts when filled to the top ) is filled with roasted soybeans, and offered at the household altar. After the dedication has been done, the family head or the Person of Year ( whoever is born under the same zodiac sign as that year ) throws the beans inside rooms and towards the entrances, crying out 'Oni-wa-soto, Fuku-wa-uchi! ( ogres out, good luck in )'. When the throwing part is over, family members are to eat as much beans as their age, either from the beans left in the measure box, or from the beans used in the Mamemaki, since the beans are believed to bring them sound health and long life.

The Derivation of Mamemaki ( bean-throwing )

The derivation of this custom Mamemaki ( bean-throwing ), goes way back to the Mameura ( divination using beans ) done in the ancient Japanese agricultural communities. People in those days are told to have divined the weather of that year, the results in their harvest, or their fortune of that year, by roasting soybeans on a fire and seeing how they were done.

This Mameura is said to have been a typical annual event for a Setsubun night, to divine the goods and bads of that year in ancient Japanese agricultural communities, though it seems that the beans were only used for the divination in these days, and were not for throwing. In parts of Japan there are still places said to be left today, that practice a similar divination as a year-beginning custom, using rice instead of beans.

Yaikagashi ( Roasted Sardine Head and Holly )

Setting roasted sardine heads thrusted with a sprig of holly, at house entrances or at the front gates is also a well known custom of Setsubun. This custom is called 'Yaikagashi ( said to originate from Yakikagashi, which literally means something roasted to make it smell )', and is said to be practiced on the night of Setsubun.

Roasted sardine heads ... I think you can imagine how it smells ... . In fact it is because of this reason, that sardine heads are used in Yaikagashi. The strong smell of a roasted sardine head, was believed to be effective on driving away the evil spirits. Ancient Japanese must have thought that even the evil spirits would try to stay away from the smell of those roasted sardine heads, though some people and most cats seem to find it appetizing.

The sprig of holly which the sardine head should be thrusted with, also is said to have the same sort of effect as a talisman against the evil, since this evergreen plant was believed to have much vital energy that kept them green even in the dead of winter. ( Actually, the Kanji or Hanji character that stands for 'holly' in Japanese, is formed by a combination of two characters, 'tree' and 'winter'. )

The saw-toothed leaves of hollies were also thought to help such effect, since its Japanese name 'Hiiragi' is told to come from an archaic Japanese term 'Hiiragu' meaning 'having terrible pain', because the leaves makes you throb with pain when pricked with it.

The Derivation of Yaikagashi

It is said that this Yaikagashi custom derived from the ancient Japanese agricultural communities, as well as the Mamemaki ( bean-throwing ) custom. People are said to have fed things that had strong smell like green onions, green chives, dried sardines, or hair to the flames, to call it 'Mushi-no Kuchiyaki ( literally, burning bugs' mouths )' chanting a charm.

In ancient times when there were still no pesticides, Japanese are said to have driven away the insect pests, with smoke or strong smell. Mushi-no Kuchiyaki must have been done for such purpose around this season of Risshun, when the insect pests were thought to become gradually active. It is thought that later it developed into the Setsubun custom of Yaikagashi, linked by the seasonal period of Risshun, and in the sense that they were both done to drive away unwelcomed things, such as evil spirits or insect pests.

Two Customs With Different Origins

The smart viewers of this site could have guessed by now, that these customs of Mamemaki or Yaikagashi originating from the ancient Japanese agricultural communities, must have got mixed with the Court rituals of Tsuina or Oniyarai imported from China, to later develop into Setsubun customs.

However, the ancient Japanese farm customs of Mameura ( divination using beans ) and Mushi-no Kuchiyaki ( literally, burning bugs' mouths ) which are said to be the origins of Mamemaki and Yaikagashi, were customs to be held respectively, on the night before Risshun ( which is Setsubun night ) and on or about Risshun, while the Tusina or Oniyarai rituals held at Court were practiced on the night of O-misoka ( the last day of the year ). That means that Mameura, Mushi-no Kuchiyaki and Tsuina or Oniyarai, was originally a different custom to be practiced on different occasions. Then why did they get together?

The Reasons for Customs Getting Mixed

Well, I think it could be explained by mainly three reasons.

First of all, February in our present Gregorian calendar is said to correspond to January in the lunisolar calendar, which means that both Risshun and Setsubun ( the day before Risshun ) that usually comes around February 3rd of the Gregorian calendar, coincides with the O-misoka and New Year season of the lunisolar calendar. This fact that the dates of O-misoka, New Year, Setsubun and Risshun of the lunisolar calendar were very close, I think, can be stated as one of the reasons for two different customs with absolutely different origins getting mixed together.

The second reason for Court rituals and ancient farm customs to get mixed, is because people thought that evil spirits symbolized by Oni ( ogres ) that were thought to cause illness or disasters, would easily break into one's life during this time of seasonal turningpoint. Risshun is about the time of year when Japan experiences a major change in climate from winter to spring, and many people fell sick during this period of broken weather. To the people in ancient times, that must have given them a good reason to hold lustarting events, to drive away the evil around this time of season.

The Influence of Five Elemnts

Besides these reasons, it is said there were the influence of the ancient Chinese thoughts of five elements, which can be thought as the third reason, behind the mixture of two different customs.

In the thoughts of five elements, there is an idea of conflict that each of the five elements ( tree, fire, earth, gold, water ) negates the effect of another element rotatively. According to this idea, Oni ( the ogres ) symbolizing the evil spirits that were thought to cause pain, illness and disasters, had the element of gold which effects were only negated by the element of fire. The hard and solid soybeans used in Mamemaki ( bean-throwing ) is also said to have the element of gold, but roasting them on fire was thought to negate their effects of gold.

By throwing roasted soybeans at Oni ( ogres ) or towards the direction of Kimon ( literally, ogre's gate, northeast in direction / in ancient Taoism, northeast was thought to be a bad direction since people thought that the netherworld lay in that direction ), anicient people must have thought that the beans being negated their effects of gold by fire, would also negate the bad effects of Oni ( ogres ). It also must have been from such reasons, that family members came to eat the beans used in the Mamemaki ( bean-throwing ) in order to avoid sickness.

In addition to the idea of conflict, oriental zodiac signs were distributed to each year, time and direction in the thoughts of five elements, and the direction of Kimon ( northeast ) is said to be in the direction of Ushi-Tora ( literally, cow and tiger ). This oriental zodiac sign of Ushi-Tora, is also said to indicate a period from December to January in the lunisolar calendar, which corresponds to around January to February in our present calendar. That concides with the dates of O-misoka, New Year, Setsubun and Risshun, mentioned before.

Moreover, it could be said a strange coincidence, that the characters of Oni ( ogres ) are ususally pictured by most Japanese, with horns like cows' on their heads, wearing a tiger skin. It's quite amazing that all the pieces seemed to be linked (!!) with Ushi-Tora ( = pain, disaster and illness ).

Anyway, the ancient Japanese early spring farm customs of Mameura and Yaikagashi, seemed to have combined together with the year-end Court rituals, in the points of date and lustration, and must have developed into the now known Setsubun event, under deep influence of the ancient Chinese thoughts of five elements.

Last Modified February 24th, 2007

Site of Reference

Setsubun - Wikipedia ( English )

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Setsubun

Setsubun, Oni Out, Happiness In ( English )

http://www2.gol.com/users/stever/setsubun.htm

Setsubun ( Japanese )

http://www.iimiyazaki.com/season/setubun/main.html

Koyomi no Page ( Japanese )

http://koyomi.vis.ne.jp/directjp.cgi? http://koyomi.vis.ne.jp/reki_doc/doc_0720.htm

Susanowo to Nigihayahi no Nihonn-gaku ( Japanese )

http://blog.livedoor.jp/susanowo/archives/50061975.html http://blog.livedoor.jp/susanowo/archives/50062440.html

Setsubun - Gogen Yurai Jiten ( Japanese )

http://gogen-allguide.com/se/setsubun.html