Sunday, February 7, 2010

JJNN: Setsubun

Today I want to introduce a modern take on an old Japanese tradition. Every year in early February (usually on the 3rd) the Japanese celebrate a tradition called setsubun. Setsubun occurs on the day before Risshun, which is the technical start of spring according to the old calendar that was used in Japan. Setsubun literally means the separating of the seasons because it is the line in the sand (so to say) between winter and spring. There are actually 3 more setsubun days for the changes between the other seasons, but they really don't get any press for some reason.

So, what do the Japanese people do on setsubun? Well, setsubun is an important part of the year because it marks the beginning of the solar year. As with the start of the solar year, the Japanese people are want to purify themselves for the coming year. As for the beginning of the solar year they have what is called Oosouji, which is basically their version of spring cleaning. In the case of setsubun, it is purification of the soul than a physical purification.

The main tool in the arsenal this time is a roasted soy bean sometimes called a fuku mame. Beans (along with salt and some other foods) have been known as tools for purification for a long time. The head of the household (or sometime another person in the household if that year corresponds with that person's Chinese zodiac) takes the beans and throws them out of the house. He would usually throw them at someone wearing a demon mask while saying "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" or, in English, "Demons out! Good luck in!" The family members than all eat a number of beans that corresponds to their age (in some places it is age plus one). That all leads to a home and family that is nicely purified for the coming lunar year (so the tradition goes).

Setsubun can also be seen in temples and shrines on this day. In some places tens of thousands of people gather just to see some famous person throw beans into the crowd. Some schools also do setsubun, but instead of soy beans they usually use shelled peanuts because they can be taken home and eaten by the students later. Below is a video from this year's setsubun in Narita (a place near Tokyo).

I said at the beginning of the post that I wanted to talk about a modern take on setsubun. By that I am not talking about a new high tech soy bean or a robotic demon to throw the beans at. I am talking about a new place to hold setsubun. When I say a new place I am not talking about a weird place in Japan or even another country. I am talking about in space. At this time on the international space station is a Japanese astronaut named Noguchi Soichi. On the first of February Noguchi decided to celebrate setsubun a little early. You can see his picture below. He is holding the mask of a demon that is traditionally used for setsubun.

Unfortunately Noguchi did not have any soy beans so he used chocolate instead. I guess it should work just as good as soy beans because it is also made with a type of bean. Maybe next year I will use chocolate will be more yummy.

Any way, it is now time for the word of the day. Today's word is 鬼(おに). It is pronounced oni and it means demon. I think the demons in Japanese literature are actually cute compared to the ones in the west (though they are just as dangerous.

See you next time at JJNN

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