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Well, beans…

Today is 節分(setsubun) in Japan, a celebration of the beginning of spring and to hope for a good year ahead. Setsubun literally means seasonal divide, and a setsubun occurs before each new season. This particular setsubun is called 立春(risshun), and is celebrated every year on February 3rd in accordance to the lunar calendar. On this day all around Japan there will be people dressing up as Oni (demons) and having beans thrown at them. This is in order to drive out all the bad spirits and welcome in the good ones for the coming year. They have a saying that goes: 「鬼は外、福は内」“Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” which can be roughly translated as: “Demons are out, luck and fortune is in!” People say or yell this phrase when they are pelting the Oni with beans. This ritual is called “mamemaki.”

I asked the people at my lunch table today why they threw beans in particular, and my principal deadpanned that stones would hurt too much. After this he went on to explain that it is probably because they were plentiful during that time of the year. He specified a special type of bean called “daizu beans” which are generally harvested in December, making them widely available for every household to use. There was another theory that it was beans, or 豆 (mame) as they are called in Japanese, because of its relationship to the adjective まめな(mamena) which means diligent or hard-working. The Japanese love these wordplays, witnessed most effectively and disturbingly by the golden poop that brings good luck. You all must be aware of this rather fascinating part of Japanese culture. “un” is the word for luck, or fortune (one of them anyway, as a few astute members of my reader base will have noticed that “fuku” from “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” was also translated as luck and fortune.) “unchi” is the word for…the other thing. Thus, because they share a similar sounding name, the two have become linked together. It was probably given a golden color because even to the Japanese a too realistically looking piece of feces just does not look good on display in the house.

golden poop

Getting back to the story, my principal believed that this relationship explanation was not used during this day of setsubun, but rather for the Japanese tradition of eating beans for new year’s. A similar tradition, but a different time of year.

After lunch I had another class, but it turns out that the staff room was all abuzz about my “why beans” question. When I got back from class I overheard a few people talking about it, so I joined them. According to the main administrative person, who looked it up, the real reason is a bit less exciting than the theories floated earlier. Apparently it originally came from China to Japan during the Heian period, approximately 1200 years ago. During this period, Japan was quite an agriculturally based country, as can be expected. Being that agriculture was so important, beans were considered quite valuable and beholden of special powers, which were thus used to repel the evil. “Why not rice?” Well, my fellow teachers were unsure, but I theorize that even at that time Japan’s staple food was rice, it was a symbol of wealth and status, and was simply too important to use on demons. Beans did not hold quite the reverence in this day, and they still do not today.

Yet another idea offered up by the gym teacher this time went along the wordplay lines. Another word for oni in Japanese is 悪魔 (akuma.) People would be aiming for the eyes of the demon (鬼の目玉をぶっつぶせ!oni no medama buttsubuse! “Blind the demon’s eyes!!” and eyes in Japanese are 目 (me). So, they are aiming for the akuma no me (the demon’s eyes,) or akumame which for those of you who remember is the word for beans in Japanese.

I wouldn't like these thrown at me either!

I can’t decide which of these theories I find the most interesting, but I love that the entire staffroom got involved in researching it! Like a lot of cultural things in Japan, we will probably never know the real story, which really makes this whole deal all the more fascinating. I am not sure if I will be throwing beans at anyone today, but I am glad I learned more about this great Japanese tradition! Hopefully you all are now a little more enlightened as well!

Happy setsubun!


Categories: Pre-Japan
  1. Peri
    February 3, 2010 at 9:21 am

    I’m glad you will have bean there, done that!

  2. Stu
    February 3, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Of course you won’t be throwing beans- you are the target. Big-ass Dutch Demon gonna be beaned left and right, just you wait.

  3. dotbearman
    February 9, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    fascinating stuff,,,love foufou

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