Setsubun Festivals in Japan

ByJason Gatewood
Jan 29, 2021

Setsubun Festivals in Japan

Each year, on the third of February, harried fathers across Japan put on paper demon masks and are pelted with roasted soybeans by their children, who cry, “Oni wa soto, Fuku wa uchi!” (Demon out, Fortune in!) until dad flees out the front door into the night air. Or turns on his children to teach them what comes of wasting delicious soybeans, although strictly speaking, this is regarded as unorthodox. This is Setsubun, traditionally marking the first day of spring.

You’ll see packets of soybeans and the masks prominently displayed in supermarkets in the days leading up to February 3, and it’s good fun at home, especially for younger children. With the Kansai area, Hiroshima also shares the tradition of eating a large makizushi roll while facing a lucky direction, which changes from year to year depending on the Chinese zodiac. You may also be surprised to see doorways adorned with the heads of sardines impaled on twigs of holly, yet another way of rendering the home unappealing to a possible demonic incursion.

But temples and shrines across Japan also hold Setsubun observations, and it can make for a fun trip. There are many places to see Setsubun celebrated publicly, and you can expect good crowds wherever you end up. It’s definitely worth a visit, as these celebrations can be colorful, loud, and performed in a spirit of good humor that isn’t always on display at such places.

Throwing Beans… But Why?

Before switching to the Gregorian calendar in the Meiji period, Japan’s annual rituals were based on the Chinese calendar, and Setsubun was once a part of these New Year’s celebrations around the lunar New Year. There was a belief in China and Japan (perhaps there still is) that demons, called oni, cause misfortunes. The practice of purging one’s house of oni was a New Year’s Eve ritual in China, adopted in Japan along with Buddhism in the 8th century. OK, but why, you may ask, why are soybeans thought to drive the demons away?

To find an answer, we go back in time. To start with, we look at Chinese numerology, where many core concepts come in fives to correspond to the five elements—wood, water, fire, metal, and earth. Soybeans were included in what was designated as the “5 kinds of cereal,” or the five most important crops.  Soybeans (or “daizu,” literally “the big bean”) were particularly powerful because they were believed to contain the spirits of the other cereals combined. Mame, or bean, is a homophone for mame (魔滅), which means “destroying evil,” so soybeans were thought especially effective against demons—like how garlic is a powerful ward against vampires in the West. And that is how throwing soybeans at demons became the central ritual of Setsubun. This ritual purges one’s life of all the invisible oni demons in one’s surroundings to ensure health and good fortune for the coming year.

Good Fortune Beans

In schools in Japan, students typically make oni masks for Setsubun. The school principal or the teachers might dress up as oni, and children will throw roasted soybeans at them, calling “Oni wa soto! (Out with the demons!) Fuku wa uchi! (In with good fortune!).” This ceremony is repeated at homes and temples throughout Japan. After the bean-throwing ritual (mamemaki), people count out and eat the number of roasted soybeans equal to their age plus one more to protect them in the year ahead. These beans are called fuku-mame (good fortune beans).


For good measure, people might also decorate the outside of their houses with prickly holly leaves and sardine heads because oni demons are known to avoid the sharp thorns of the holly and detest the smell of sardines. In the Kansai region, it’s also typical to eat ehou-maki, an over-sized makizushi roll with seven ingredients (representing luck). In recent years, eating this traditional dish has become popular throughout Japan.

Setsubun Festivals Near You

Setsubun Festivals in Tokyo

Setsubun Festivals in Nagoya: That Bean-Throwing Festival

Toyohashi Demon Festival (near Nagoya)

Setsubun Festivals in Hiroshima: Out With the Bad, in With the Good!

Image by katorisi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Image byMc681, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About the author

Jason Gatewood subscriber

Our Tokyo based collaborator is a tech nerd, Japanophile, train nut, and a veritable fountain of information on Japan. His current goal is to watch Evangelion and actually "get it", sing every permutation of "Hotel California" at any karaoke gathering, ride every bullet train line, and sample all varieties of ramen throughout Japan. Catch more of his musings at ·