Setsubun: Out with the demons, in with good fortune!

Today, February 3rd, marks the date of a Japanese festival called setsubun (節分). It is celebrated as the last day before spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar. The first character setsu (節) here means “season”, and bun (分) means “division” or “to divide”. What is meant is of course that this day divides the seasons of winter and spring. As is the case with most holidays, there are many words that are associated with setsubun.

On the day of setsubun, people throw roasted soy beans at a person dressed as a so-called oni (鬼 “demon”). This practice is called mamemaki, from mame (豆) “bean” and maki (撒き) “throwing”. In families, traditionally the oni would be played by the father, but it brings extra good luck when the person playing the oni is a toshi otoko (年男 “year-man”) or toshi onna (年女 “year-woman), born in same Chinese zodiac year that it currently is. This year is a toridoshi (酉年 “year of the rooster”). (Find out if you are a rooster on Wikipedia!)

While throwing the beans to chase the demons out of your house, one is supposed to shout “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外、福は内). This means something along the lines of “Out with the demon(s)! In with good fortune!”.

Another word containing maki that is related to setsubun is ehō-maki (恵方巻き, lit. “blessing-direction-roll”). This time, however, the maki is spelled with a different character, that of the verb meaning “to roll” – you might know this use of maki from your local sushi shop. Ehō-maki is a huge sushi roll that you are meant to eat while facing a “lucky” direction (which changes every year).

While the tradition of eating a sushi roll might be older, the term ehō-maki has a not so romantic origin: it was coined in 1998 by convenience store chain Seven Eleven, which sells pre-made ehō-maki.

Hopefully by reading this post you will have learned some new Japanese words. And it is not too late (at least in our time zone): you can still celebrate your own setsubun tonight!

Anne Aarssen
Editor of the Linguistic Bibliography