Setsubun: Ultimate Guide to Welcoming a New Season in Japan

Last Updated on 01.03.2022 by Coto Japanese Language School

Beans, ogres and sushi. These words shouldn’t make sense together, but to describe Setsubun, you will need all three. Although it might sound baffling, there’s a thousand-year-old tradition behind it. It’ll make sense — we promise. 

The word Setsubun takes up the kanji 節 (setsu, meaning season) and 分 (bun, meaning division). Together, they literally mean ‘seasonal division’. 

Setsubun is the day before the beginning of spring (according to the old Japanese lunar calendar) when people chase away demons to welcome a new season. It usually falls around February 2, 3 or 4. So while most part of the world is going crazy over Valentine’s Day, cherry blossoms or Easter, you’ll find Japanese families throwing scattering beans around their house and decorating their entrances with fish heads and holly tree leaves. 

Although it’s not an official New Year (it’s not even a national holiday), most Japanese people still follow the rituals. Similar to the lunar new year, a lot of the Setsubun’s cultural practices are aimed to cleanse the previous year, drive out the bad fortunes. Above all, it’s a fun way for children to channel their tantrums by throwing beans at their dad.  

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Making Sense of Setsubun 

Before it became part of Japanese tradition, Setsubun was originally a Chinese custom called “tsuina”. In China and Japan, people believe misfortunes are caused by demons, or 鬼 (oni). When seasons change, the people are at their most vulnerable to bad things and diseases, so the practice of purging your house of these demons began. In the eighth centur (around the Heian Period), it was adopted in Japan, together with Buddhism. 

Traditionally, Setsubun is celebrated in individual households. People would start throwing beans to kick out the demons to avoid famines, diseases or disasters. The tradition eventually branches out based on regions and families, too, but you can always observe them at shrines and temples. 

Setsubun marks the day before the beginning of a new season. Technically, that means there are four Setsubun celebrations in a year, but in post-Edo times, the day turned associated with the beginning of spring. 

For 2022, Setsubun falls on February 3

setsubun tradition ehomaki makizushi coto academy

Setsubun and Mamemaki: Out With The Devil, In With The Fortune

Setsubun is widely known for one thing: bean-throwing, or mamemaki (豆撒き). The idea here is to throw those beans at wicked demons to purge. As preparation, Japanese people will roast “lucky” soybeans, known as fukumame (福豆), in a wooden box called asakemasu. It’s the same box that is used to serve sake and nihonshu (Japanese rice wine).

The soybeans are then thrown out to the front door — or sometimes, to a real demon. A family member, usually the father, will dress up as an oni costume or mask, and the children will throw the beans at him while chanting “鬼は外! 福は内! (Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!)” The meaning? “Devils out! Fortune in!” 

Some families do it differently, Sometimes, it’s the head of the household — and not the children — to throw the beans outside; the kids will don paper masks and run away from the bean thrower.  Some people who want to stick to the convention will pick men or women whose Chinese zodiac matches that year’s Setsubun. 

For some households, they’ll chant along “Gomottomo, gomottomo” (“That’s right, that’s right!). Some regions will use peanuts instead of soybeans, too. Either way, it’s a fun family event. They only need to stick to one rule: they can only throw the beans, and not pull or push the demons.

After the ‘demon’ gets expelled, the demon player will be re-invited into the house as a god bringing good luck. The whole family gathers together to eat the roasted soybeans that are the same number of their age. They can eat one more bean for more protection.

If you can’t don’t want to eat the beans, you can also brew them in hot water to make fukucha (福茶), which means “lucky tea”. You can reroast it or add salted kelp and pickled palms to make the broth salty. 

So what magical power do these soybeans have? 

Here’s the thing: homophones play a central part in Chinese and Japanese superstitions. Japanese bitter oranged, called daidai () is part of osechi (traditional tiered box eaten during New Year’s) because it sounds the same as daidai (代々), which means “from generation to generation”. The number ‘4’ is considered bad luck because it’s a homophone for death (“shi”).

Likewise, beans, or mame () is a symbol of good luck because it is a homophone for another word, mame (魔滅), which means “destroying evil”.

In the Chinese tradition, soybeans were considered the five most important crops, and they were thought to contain the spirits of all the crops combined. If you need to put two and two together, the kanji for soybean, daizu (大豆) literally means “the big bean”. Some sources also say that soybeans’ firm characteristic is similar to an oni. To roast the bean and make it edible is to ‘conquere’  the evil spirits. Throwing the beans means throwing out evil spirits, and eat them means digesting the demons. 

These days, Setsubun isn’t just a family-sized event. Because it’s not a public holiday, most family members will either be at school or work. In Japanese schools, the teachers (or even the principal) might dress up as the oni while the students throw roasted beans. In bigger cities like Tokyo,  temples and priests can perform mamemaki, too. 

Warding Off Evil: Iwashi and Holly Branch

Besides soybeans, people can ward off evil using iwashi (sardines). With a holly branch, which is considered a sacred plant, you pierce the fish through its eyeballs to not-so-subtly symbolize piercing an oni’s eyes. The sardine heads are then grilled and displayed at the entrance of the house, knotted together and adorned with holly leaves. Because sardines contain a lot of oil, they emit more smoke, which in turn makes the ward more effective. 

Some families will hang the fish on the undersides (like porches) of their traditional houses because that location is believed to be vulnerable to demons. 

setsubun tradition iwashi holly branch

Setsubun and Ehomaki: Eating The Fortune 

In the recent decade, ehomaki (恵方巻), which means “lucky direction roll”  has become a popular dish to eat during Setsubun nights. ehomaki is an uncut makizushi roll filled with seven ingredients, with the number ‘7’ indicating luck. The ingredients are usually vinegared rice, simmered shiitake mushroom, cucumber, tamagoyaki (egg roll) and eel. 

There’s a special way to eat ehomaki, though. You will need to hold the sushi roll while facing the new year’s lucky compass, which is decided through the zodiac symbol, and eat it in silence. 

Take a look at the table below for the ehomaki direction for the upcoming years.

YearDirection
February 3, 2022North-north-west
February 3, 2023South-south-east
February 3, 2024East-north-east 
February 2, 2025West-south-west
February 3, 2026South-south-east 

The tradition originates from Osaka Prefecture, but the store and konbini (convenience store) companies saw it as an opportunity to fill the marketing lull before Valentine’s Day rush, it gained huge popularity. Eventually, ehomaki became part of setsubun. You can pre-order them at your local Family Mart or Seven-Eleven. 

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What to Eat on Setsubun

1. Setsubun Iwashi (節分いわし)

The other bulk of the fish that’s not used to fend off the demon? In some households, it’s eaten as part of the Setsubun meal. After removing the internal organs, you coat the body with salt for around 30 minutes to get rid of excess water and condense the fish umami. 

2. Peanuts (ピーナッツ)

Particularly in the Hokkaido, Tohoku, Miyazaki, many families swap soybeans with peanuts (or 落花生, pronounced rakkasei))because it’s considered more hygienic. Most of us won’t pick up soybeans from the ground and eat them, but the extra coating of peanut thick, hard shells gives an ease of mind. 

3. Setsubun Soba (節分そば)

Soba is a traditional staple, eaten during celebrations and cultural events. The same can be said about Setsubun. Although not probably popular in Tokyo (or the Kanto area), it’s a custom in Nagano Prefecture and Izumo. 

4. Shougazake (生姜酒)

Shougazake is a type of sake brewed in ginger, typically drunk on the night of Setsubun. 

Variations of Setsubun 

The Setsubun tradition trickled down for centuries, from one region to another. Across Japan, you’ll find variations of Setsubun rituals, chants and other practices. In Kyoto, which is the center of Japan’s geisha culture, geisha apprentices will perform a dance and throw roasted soybeans. Other areas will throw small envelopes with money, candies and gold or silver-foiled soybeans. 

Instead of throwing the soybeans, the head of the household — the father, because Japan mostly adopts a patriarchal system — will instead pray with the beans wrapped in his hand. Some families will offer the beans at the kamidana (miniature household altars). After that, they’ll toss it out the door. 

There are a few varieties on the chants, too. In Aizuwakamatsu  —  a town in Fukushima — you will find people shouting, “Oni no medama buttsubuse (鬼の目玉ぶっつぶせ)!” which means “Blind the demon’s eyes.”

In Sensouji temple, you’ll hear “Long life, fortune in!” instead of “Demons out, fortune in!” because they don’t believe in the presence of demons in front of their goddess. 

setsubun japan tradition coto academy

Setsubun Festivals in Tokyo

With Setsubun becoming more of a fun event, the beliefs diluted, but the tradition stays. Now, you can observe this bean-scattering ceremony across major demographic points in Japan — the most being in Tokyo. Shrines and temples will host Setsubun, joined by celebrities.

Besides beans, don’t be surprised to see priests throwing out money, chocolate or other prizes to the crowd. If you’re in and around Tokyo on February 3, make sure to check out the closest Setsubun festival. 

Due to the uncertain (and ongoing) situation with COVID-19, events may be subject to change. We recommend visiting the event’s website for the latest updates.

Sensoji Temple at Asakusa 

At Sensoji, Tokyo’s most popular Buddhist temple, chants are done differently. No demons can be present in front of the shrine’s, Kannon — goddess of mercy. Instead of the usual “Demons out, fortune in,” you’ll hear prayer on eternal good luck: “Senshuubanzei fukuhauchi (千秋万歳福は内)”, which can be interpreted to “Long life, fortune in!” 

After the bean-tossing ritual, you can see Sensoji’s other famous ritual:  “Seven Deities of Good Fortune Dance”. Just don’t be surprised if you recognize a public figure cruising around the stage and throwing the beans, too. 

Location:  2 -3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo

Zojoji-temple at Shibkoen

The temple will perform the Setsubun nuo-folk ceremony. You can enjoy the bean-tossing session held on the stage while watching children wearing colorful handmade kamishimo (traditional samurai kimono), men and women will also parade around the venue. 

Location: 4-7-35 Shibakoen, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Time: 12:20 pm
Website: www.zojoji.or.jp/event

Toranomon Kotohiragu Shrine

The Setsubun ceremony will begin around 12:30 pm. A priest will sprinkle the “fortune beans” around the shrine, and visitors are welcome to watch. 

Location:  1-2-7 Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Time: 12:30 pm
Website: www.kotohira.or.jp/event

Atago Shrine

The shrine will perform a ritual to exterminate evil and invite good fortune. If you want to attend, you will need to contact the shrine’s administration office directly.

Location: 1-5-3 Atago, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Time: 12:30 pm
Website: www.atago-jinja.com/event

Tokyo Tower

Although not a shrine or temple, Tokyo Tower still welcomes visitors in their annual Setsubun event. Go up the main deck of the second floor to see the priests from Zojoji Temple giving the beans at oni. Due to COVID-19 measures, they will not throw the beans. Instead, they will distribute them directly at the venue. 

Time: 10: 45-11: 00
Location: 4-2-8 Shibakoen, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Website: www.tokyotower.co.jp/en

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