Throw beans and hunt demons!

Marie Ebersolt

3rd February, 2023

Engraving by Hokusai illustrating the mamemaki

Originally, setsubun is the set of dates in the lunar calendar that precede the transition from one season to another. During these days, man is vulnerable to the change of climate and his body requires a period of physiological adaptation. This sensitivity to the external environment was attributed to the harmful energies of demons. Thus, exorcism ceremonies were held in palaces and temples between the 8th century and the Edo period (1603-1868) when the ritual became more democratic and focused exclusively on marking the beginning of spring.

Setsubun consists of throwing soybeans outwards while shouting "demons out, happiness in". The aim is to chase away the evil that is trying to invade the home and to attract good fortune. In the history of this ritual, we can observe throws of rice, wheat or even coal. However, it is soy beans that have become widespread because of their cost and accessibility. Moreover, the Japanese attributed to them the virtue of driving out demons. In fact, the word Mame, bean, can be understood as the eye of the devil or the destruction of the devil. 

The date differs from year to year as it is taken from the lunar calendar. This ritual coincides with the first solar period traditionally marking the beginning of the year and the start of spring, between the second and fourth of February. At this time, mamemaki kits, thrown with beans, are sold in supermarkets. In addition to the soybeans, there is a mask for a parent to play the oni, the evil person. The child runs after the oni, chanting the formula mentioned above.

Even today, ceremonies are organised in the temples, and the cries of children, hunters of evil, resound at the beginning of February in every home.

Here we are, halfway between winter and spring. The days are getting longer and longer, and our mood is coming out of its gloomy state with the arrival of the first buds. This pivotal moment is nevertheless a sensitive passage in the Japanese imagination. Between each season, evil foeces try to find their way to attack humans. To defend themselves, rituals are organised to chase away the evil spirits. This is the setsubun.

Marie Ebersolt