Setsubun or Sechibun (the day before the beginning of a season) (節分)
Setsubun,' or 'sechibun,' means the day before the beginning of a season, while the first day of spring, summer, autumn or winter is called 'risshun,' 'rikka,' 'risshu' or 'ritto,' respectively. The term setsubun or sechibun also means the division of seasons. Particularly since the Edo period, the term setsubun (or sechibun) has been often used to specify the day before risshun (the first day of spring, around February 3 of every year except February 4 for leap years). In the following explanation the term setsubun is used to mean the day before the beginning of spring, referring to various events to be held on that day.
In the past
Events for the setsubun day used to be the annual functions observed at court. According to Engishiki (an ancient book on the codes and procedures on national rites and prayers), the Imperial Court used to adorn each gate of Daidairi (the Outer Palace Precincts) with dolls of colored soil in the shape of an ox and child on this setsubun day. A ritual of purification to exorcise oni (ogres) or evil spirits held on this setsubun day originally came from "Tsuina" (a year-end ceremony to drive away ogres), which had been observed since around the Heian period.
In the modern times
After entering the modern age, the above-mentioned annual events went out of fashion; instead, people became accustomed to placing Hiiragi-iwashi (a sprig of holly pricked into a baked sardine's head) at the door of each house and to performing a bean-scattering ceremony. In some regions, people hang a straw rope attached with a holly sprig and the head of a baked sardine. This custom has been practiced for the purpose of exorcising oni (ogres), which are believed to show up at the time of seasonal change.
On this setsubun day, various events have been traditionally performed for the purpose of purging noxious vapors.
Mame maki (Bean-throwing ceremony)
After throwing beans, each person eats the scattered beans equal to his or her age (the traditional Japanese system with everyone adding one year to their age at New Year's). People in some localities have the custom of eating one more pieces of the beans than his or her age in order to build up their health and prevent colds. The throwing of beans implies the clearing away of noxious vapors by striking oni with the beans and making a wish for perfect health during the coming year. This custom stemmed from the mame uchi (bean-throwing ceremony), performed by temples and shrines to expel noxious vapors. It has been practiced in Japan since at least the Muromachi period, considering the fact that the oldest descriptions of it were found in the documents of that period. Initially, beans were thrown over one's back.
In Kanto, Tokai, Nishi-Nihon (West Japan) and Kita-Kyushu (Northern Kyushu), roasted soybeans (irimame) are used. In Hokkaido, Tohoku, Hokuriku and Minami-Kyushu (Southern Kyushu), people throw unshelled peanuts, which have the advantage of being easy to collect, and even those thrown on the ground can be collected and eaten.
In concert with their throwing actions, the throwers shout. Usually, they shout "Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (In with good fortune! Out with ogres!)," although the words vary according to the region or shrine. At a shrine where an oni is enshrined as a deity or treated as a messenger of a deity, or at a shrine or temple for katayoke (elimination of hazards existing in an ominous direction), the words shouted by bean throwers are "Oni mo (wa) uchi (In with ogres, too!)" instead of "Oni wa soto ("Out with ogres!)." If a family name contains a kanji character (a Chinese character) of "Oni" (such as "Onizuka," "Kito," and so on, though they are comparatively few), or if any region has a kanji character of "Oni" in its name, most of the bean throwers are reported to yell "Oni wa uchi (In with ogres!)." Also, please refer to the descriptions on some characteristic Setsubun-sai (setsubun festivals) and Setsubun-e (setsubun ceremonies). In some regions, roasted beans are thrown after being offered on kamidana (a household Shinto altar).
When setsubun season comes, many supermarkets reserve special spaces for setsubun, where they sell parched beans called 'fukumame' (literally, 'lucky beans') for the mamemaki ceremony. Fukumame are sometimes sold with a free gift of an oni mask (ogre's face mask) printed on a piece of thick paper, which the father or another family member puts on his face to play a role of the oni, then stirring up the mame maki. However, originally, the ceremony was intended to demonstrate the father's authority as the head of the family by exorcising oni.
At any elementary school, pupils of the fifth grade level correspond to toshi-otoko or toshi-onna (men or women born in the year current under the twelve-year cycle of the Oriental zodiac). Therefore, fifth-grade pupils at many elementary schools play a central role in performing the mame maki. At some kindergartens or day nurseries linked with some shrines or temples, children may play the role of miko (shrine maidens) or chigo (children in a festival procession). It may be said that big shrines and temples have made it become as an event to invite entertainers, athletes or others as bean throwers on the day of setsubun.
In the past, rice, wheat, dried chestnuts, charcoal and other materials were reportedly used along with beans, but eventually beans became exclusively used because they are the most productive of the five main cereals, and also because of their hitting sound and proper size for throwing. The reason these beans were roasted was, to avoid such inconvenience as any of the thrown beans sprouting, since setsubun throws away all disasters or troubles of the past year with those beans.
Around the time of setsubun, geisha (maiko, geiko) (Japanese professional female entertainers at drinking parties) as well as other hostesses in such places as Asakusa in Tokyo, Kyo no Hanamachi (Kagai) in Kyoto and Kita-Shinchi in Osaka make themselves up in costumes other than their usual attire. This custom is called "obake" (according to one theory, it is claimed that people originally disguised themselves as children with a child-like hairstyle called "obokami (お坊髪) (a hairstyle for children)," but the term was changed to "obake"). It came from the belief that people may dispel devils by disguising themselves with different costumes than the usual ones. At one time, it was practiced among ordinary people and families, but it has remained up to now only in hanamachi (geisha district) as an attraction to draw in customers. However, this custom of "obake" has recently been showing its reappearance among the ordinary citizens of Kyoto City and surrounding areas.
Setsubun-sai (setsubun festivals) and setsubun-e (setsubun ceremonies) in Japan
Chuson-ji Temple (Hiraizumi-cho, Iwate Prefecture)
Inviting some popular wrestlers of the grand sumo tournaments, a mamemaki ceremony is performed there by yaku-otoko, yaku-onna (men and women of lucky age) to expel evil spirits and pray for good luck.
Ryuko-ji Temple (Tomioka City, Gunma Prefecture)
Onikoi-setsubun-sai (Onikoi Setsubun Festival) (Fujioka City, Gunma Prefecture)
"Fuku wa uchi, oni wa uchi! (In with fortune! In with ogres!)" is the slogan called out at oniyobi-mamemaki (a bean throwing ceremony to call in ogres).
Kijin-jinja Shrine (Ranzan-machi, Saitama Prefecture)
"Fuku wa uchi, oni wa uchi, akuma wa soto (In with fortune! In with ogres! Out with the devil!)" is called out.
Mitsumine-jinja Shrine (Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture)
Gomottomo-shinji (a divine service called Gomottomo)
Sogan-ji Temple (Kazo City, Saitama Prefecture)
There is Aka-oni (a red ogre) with a large taimatsu (a firebrand) in hand, popular sumo wrestlers attend, and a procession of small children is held.
Gojo-tenjinja Shrine (Taito Ward, Tokyo Prefecture)
Ukera no shinji (divine service by burning stocks of ukera or okera [Atractylodes japonica]). A ritual of exorcism (taina) is performed in the same manner as was introduced during the Heian period from the Tang Dynasty of China.
Naritasan Shinsho-ji Temple (Narita City, Chiba Prefecture)
"Fuku wa uchi" is shouted, being attended by well-known sumo wrestlers and other entertainers.
Ikegami Honmon-ji Temple (Ota Ward, Tokyo Metropolis)
"Fuku wa uchi" is shouted because the temple enshrines Kishimojin (a goddess of childbirth and children, which term includes a Chinese kanji character of oni) in its precinct, and professional wrestlers enter the service for the shrine because it has kept the grave of Rikidozan, the late popular Japanese professional wrestler.
Inarikio-jinja Shrine (Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo Metropolis)
"Fuku wa uchi, oni wa uchi" is shouted.
Hakone-jinja Shrine (Hakone-cho, Kanagawa Prefecture)
Miko (shrine maidens) girls with heavy makeup throw beans against water-skiing oni.
Saijo-ji Temple (Minami-Ashigara City, Kanagawa Prefecture)
Hoon-ji Temple (Chonan-machi, Chiba Prefecture)
"Fuku wa uchi, oni mo uchi, oni no medama buttobase!! (In with fortune, in with ogres, too, and blow ogres' eyeballs away!!)" is called out.
Naritasan Fukui Betsuin (Naritasan Branch Temple in Fukui) (Sakai City, Fukui Prefecture)
Beans are thrown by maiko girls.
Oniiwa Fukuoni Festival (Mitake-cho, Gifu Prefecture)
"Oni wa uchi" is shouted.
Osu-kannon Temple (Naka Ward, Nagoya City)
An oni mask is enshrined as the temple's treasure, so that only "fuku wa uchi" is shouted.
Beans are thrown by maiko girls.
Three oni in different colors perform dancing.
"Oni wa uchi, Fuku wa soto (In with ogres! Out with fortune!)" is shouted.
"Hosha no gi" (literally, an arrow-shooting ritual) is performed by shooting hamaya (ritual arrows to drive away devils).
Zao-ji Temple (Yoshino-cho, Nara Prefecture)
"Fuku wa uchi, Oni mo uchi (In with Fortune! In with ogres, too!)" is called out.
Nagata-jinja Shrine (Nagata Ward, Kobe City)
Seven oni perform dances, burning out various plagues with torches and cutting inauspicious matters off with swords.
Kibitsu-jinja Shrine (Okayama City, Okayama Prefecture)
After the mame maki, horafuki-taikai (a boasting contest) is held around a bonfire. Horafuki-shinji (boasting Shinto ritual).
Hofu-tenmangu Shrine (Hofu City, Yamaguchi Prefecture)
Ushikae-shinji (a ritual of replacing an old ox with a new one to draw the divine carriage) is performed in order to appoint, by lottery, a person in charge of shingyu (a divine ox) to draw the sacred carriage at the Gojinko-sai Festival.
Susa-jinja Shrine (Izumo City, Shimane Prefecture)
Being associated with the folk story of Somin Shorai (a character appearing in the legend of Susano-o, an ancient Japanese god), ceremonies of chinowa-kuguri (passing through a hoop made of kaya grass [a plant of the sedge family]) and kagura (sacred music and dancing performed at a shrine) are dedicated to the shrine.
Gyokusen-ji Temple (Soto sect) (Kita-kyushu City, Fukuoka Prefecture)
This temple is regarded as the place where the mame maki had begun and setsubun-related folk stories were handed down through the generations.