On February 3rd of 2011, Setsubun will be celebrated throughout Japan. Falling at the end of the period defined by the solar principal term Daikan (Severe Cold), Setsubun occurs one day before the sectional term Risshun (Spring Begins). The setsu of Setsubun (literally "sectional separation") originally referred to the eve of any of the 24 divisions of the solar year (see The Lunar Calendar in Japan for an explanation of these divisions). However, the Setsubun associated with "Spring Begins" gained significance as a symbol of Toshi Koshi (year passing) or Jyo Jitsu (accepting the old year) by marking the completion of the cycle of the 24 divisions of the solar year. Only this Setsubun is still marked on the official calendar. Setsubun achieved the status of an imperial event and further took on symbolic and ritual significance relative to its association with prospects for a "returning sun", associated climatic change, renewal of body and mind, expulsion of evil, symbolic rebirth, and preparation for the coming planting season. Customs surrounding this day apparently date as early as the Ming Dynasty in China, and in Japanese form, began to take shape in the Muromachi Era (1392-1573), that era of Japanese history in which the country saw little internal peace but in which such customs as tea ceremony and other genteel arts and practices so often associated with Japan developed.
Setsubun generally always precedes the lunar New Year, and in the ancient ideal was often actually referred to as New Years' Eve. In 2008, solar and lunar cycles coincided enough to make the ideal almost real in that February 4th marked Risshun (Spring Begins), and February 7th was the actual lunar New Year in both China and Japan. In 2011, Setsubun actually occurs on the lunar New Year (February 3), making the ideal again very close.
Setsubun has been celebrated in many ways, but perhaps the most common custom found throughout Japan is the traditional Mame Maki or the scattering/throwing of beans (mame) to chase away the evil oni (ogres, evil spirits, as depicted in the illustration which heads this article). In some ritual forms, the Toshi Otoko [literally "year man" but referring either to the "man of the house" or to men who are born in the animal sign of the coming year (rabbit for the year 2011)] will throw mame within the house or at someone perhaps dressed as oni and repeat the saying Oni wa Soto; Fuku wa Uchi (Get out Ogre! Come in Happiness!). After the ritual throwing of the beans, family members may then pick up the number of beans corresponding to their age; eating these brings assurance of good fortune in the coming year. These days, of course, it is not uncommon to see children dressed in masks of oni, others madly throwing beans, and all gleefully shouting for evil to hit the road. Prominent temples in Japan may also find monks or celebrities showering large crowds of people with mame to ward off spirits and welcome the renewal of the coming New Year.
( Written by: By Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara. Revised January, 2011. )