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The Yokai Files – Oni and Setsubun

Today is the 1st of February which means in two days  it’ll be time for Setsubun. Setsubun is the day which marks the start of the new season, though the most significant of these is the spring setsubun (or Risshun).

The spring setsubun is a chance for a fresh start, much like New Year’s day it’s a chance to stop the bad and usher in the good.

So just how do you do that – well with beans of course! Everybody knows that bad luck is caused by Oni – the huge, horned, red denizens of Jigoku (Japanese Hell).

Your typical Oni is often shown with huge claws, fangs and carrying a massive iron club, though originally these wicked spirits were simply formless and invisible instigators of accidents, disasters and bad luck. Either way you wouldn’t want one in your house. So how do you get them out? Well that’s where the beans come in, because setsubun is nothing without a lot of bean throwing.

Mamemaki (Bean-Throwing) is performed all over Japan on this day, usually with rosted soybeans which are believed to cleanse the house of bad spirits. Whilst throwing the beans around you also have to shout -

Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外! 福は内!)

Oni out!! Good luck in!!

Then to finish off you should eat one bean for every year of your age, plus one for good extra good luck – and that’s it your house will be free from all demonic infestation.

Now this all might seem all a little archaic, but it’s a tradition that alive and well. Every year school children get a little packet of beans with their school lunch on Setsubun, and across the country shops are now stocked with pre-roast throwing beans and Oni masks – like these I snapped in my local super market earlier today.

So there you are – grab your beans and have a happy setsubun :-)

CULTURE NOTES

This is another great example of how yokai myths and legends are part of the very fabric of Japanese life. In western terms, Oni are much more closely related the religious imagery of devils than they are to the fairy story or folk tale tradition that most yokai are born out of. However, as in the western tradition, there is an overlap between these two things and Oni pop up in many contexts throughout Japanese culture and history, from sacred texts, through popular tales like ‘Momotarou‘, to modern video games like the ‘Onimusha’ series.

Next time will be another haikyo report.

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