Mark Guthrie

No matter how many gaijin friends you may have, it can be guaranteed that, when it comes to learning the local language they will fall into one of three camps: one will be the fluent speakers, the ones who are invaluable for those times when you desperately need the language, such as in a restaurant with no pictures on the menu, chatting up beautiful Japanese girls in bars, or placating the irate Japanese boyfriends of beautiful Japanese girls in bars.

Another will be the mid-level avid learner, never without his Genki Japanese textbook and casually, irritatingly, dropping Japanese words into English conversations just to show how au fait with the lingo he is. And the third are those who resolutely refuse to learn the language, been here ten years, but fuck it, I ain’t speaking a bloody word of it!

However, it can be guaranteed that everyone, even those who fall into the latter camp, knows the Japanese phrase ‘samui ne’. This is because the phrase, during winter, is never far from a Japanese’s lips. ‘Samui ne, samui ne, samui ne,’ they will chant like a mantra, as if by simply acknowledging the fact, repeatedly, the phrase rubbing against itself again and again like the sticks of a diligent Cub Scout, it will spark their inner kindling, warming and protecting them against the harsh seasonal elements. But who can blame them? It is bloody cold, and surely not one of us, unless you have a perverse addiction to the carbon monoxide emitted from the kerosene heaters, is yearning for this harshest of seasons to continue.

But guess what. It’s all over. Spring has finally sprung! Now, don’t let the fact that your breath still hangs in the air, you have icicles dripping from your nose and the reality that you could cut diamonds with your nipples fool you. Winter is in fact behind us because Setsubun is here!

Setsubun is, according to the old Japanese calendar, the day before the first day of spring (February 3rd this year), and it is a time for cleansing one’s life and home before the beginning of a new season. And what’s the best way to do that? Well, it’s to throw beans at people of course. Okay, that’s not strictly accurate. You can’t go around throwing beans at just anyone. No, beans are specifically being thrown at Oni. You know, those red faced demons whose long, phallic noses, you suspect, are being used for less than salubrious purposes in the Japanese AV industry. (And if you have got those suspicions, I can categorically confirm that you are correct. How do I know? Um, a friend told me. Anyway, back to Setsubun…)

You see, the throwing of the beans, the custom of mamemaki, is designed to chase out evil spirits from the home, and thus purify the household for the upcoming year. But it’s not just anyone who can go throwing their fukumame (fortune beans, simply roasted soybeans) about the place. No, this special task is reserved for the toshitoko, a male of the household who was born on the corresponding year of the Chinese zodiac. Should your homestead not possess such a man, it is left to the male head of the household to do the scattering. As you can tell, despite what you may have seen on the internet, the Japanese are not keen on having their women folk flicking their own beans.

So, whichever man is in charge of proceedings will empty the sake from his masu cup and fill it with soybeans. He will then go to the front door and, under-armed, scatter the beans out of his house while everyone chants “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Demons out! Luck in!”). This seems to shit the Oni right up, and they usually scarper pretty sharpish. (Although you really have to wonder about the type of demon that is scared off by a few soybeans. In fact, the whole thing seems pretty much a waste of time when you think about it, as that sort of demon could probably be given a kick up the arse, a tweak on the nose and sent scurrying off, crying to its mummy. But who am I to argue with centuries of tradition? Anyway, I digress.) After the beast has been banished from the door, the toshitoko will scatter any remaining beans around the house, in what seems a somewhat counterproductive form of cleansing when you think about it.

But if the mother of the household was starting to tap her foot, muttering things like “It’s all well and bloody good you having fun, chucking your beans about, but it’s muggins here that’ll have to clean up this mess,” the beans are gathered and (with the ‘five second rule’ accounted for, one would presume) eaten by everyone to the volume of one for every year of their life, plus one to ensure a lucky year’s extension to thier mortal coil. Quite what Japan’s many centenarians think about having to knock back scores of beans, particularly having just sidestepped the life-threatening mochi at New Year, is beyond me.

For those who are still hungry after the mame madness, there is always a spot of ehomaki, an uncut roll of makizushi. This tradition, in which you eat the long sushi roll, pointing it in in the lucky direction (this year’s being East North East), has its origins in the Kansai area, but its expansion across the nation has been steady in recent years and, there are whispers that this is less down to the acceptance of tradition, and more about the insistence of the powerful seaweed magnates attempting to increase profit margins, particularly when they start bringing out gold ehomaki at nearly 5000 a pop. But of course those whispers are hushed ones as no one wishes to get on the wrong sides of the seaweed magnates. No one.

But I digress. Again. Where was I?

Oh yes, back to the Oni. Yes, in many families, as the toshitoko is chucking his beast banishing beans, he reqiures someone to chuck them at. In most instances someone dresses up as the Oni, complete with mask, and allows the household head to peg him with the legumes. But not all families do that as either good masks are hard to come by, or that the mask they do own was loaned out to Uncle Shunsuke along with the video camera to make an ‘art movie’ and no one has dared go near the mask since. In these situations many families will head to a parade to get their Setsubun cosplay on.

Should your average Nagoyan be so inclined, they can pop over to Osu Kannon where a parade featuring a takarabune (treasure ship) and the seven gods of fortune, replete with oni-a-plenty, will arrive at 15:00 (having left Sakae intersection at the impressively presice time of 13:18). Thoroughout the day (between 10:00 and 18:00) there will be a bean scattering ceremony where most people stand politely and try to catch a few beans thrown from the specially erected stage, while some unscrupulous beanhogs will stand below with upturned umbrellas to capture a frankly unecessary over-abundance of beans. The only reason that can be assumed for this bean greed is that they have dozens of centenarians in their family and that Setsubun is potentially a financially crippling time of year.

But no matter your religious beliefs or partiality towards soy beans, one thing can be said for setsubun: it’s definitely not spring yet. It’s still bloody freezing!

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