In Japanese, “setsubun” means “division of the seasons” but the word is generally used with reference to the festival that takes place each February 3.
The primary Setsubun ritual, known as mamemaki (“bean scattering”) dates to the Muromachi Period (1336-1573 – the era in which I set my Hiro Hattori mystery novels). Traditionally, mamemaki involved either the male head of the household or the oldest male born on the corresponding year of the Chinese Zodiac (in 2017, that would be the oldest male born in the year of the Rooster) throwing roasted soybeans out the door while yelling “Demons Out – Luck In!” – and then slamming the door.
People also eat roasted soybeans on setsubun. Traditionally, you should eat one bean for every year of your age, plus one more to symbolize luck in the year to come.
A variation of the bean scattering ritual–which is believed to purify the home and protect it against evil spirits and bad fortune–is also performed at many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. At shrines, the beans (and often other items, like candy) are normally thrown by priests, dignitaries, or invited guests.
Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, Sensoji, has one of the largest setsubun festivals in Tokyo. Although I haven’t had the good fortune to attend one, I did visit Sensoji last autumn … so imagine this square, in daylight, filled with tens of thousands of visitors:
(and yes, the crowds really do get that big).
Like many Japanese festivals, setsubun has roots in centuries-old tradition but is embraced as part of modern Japanese culture.
I ate my roasted soybeans today … did you?