Setsubun is the day before the beginning of spring in the old calendar in Japan. Setsubun literally translates to “season division”, and as the name suggests, this holiday celebrates the end of the cold winter, as well as the beginning of spring. This day is also known as Bean-Throwing Day, as Japanese people have a long tradition of throwing beans just outside their front door on this day.
The significance of this holiday is to drive away all the bad luck and evils from last year, and invite good things and luck for this year. Mamemaki, or literally “bean scattering”, is a physical observation of this attempt to drive away evil. This ritual can be performed in two ways. A person throws roasted soybeans out their front door, or at a family member wearing a demon mask shouting “Devil out, fortune in”. These beans symbolically purify the home and family, in much the same way that holy water lightly splashed by a priest in church cleanses the church-goers from evil and sin.
This is of course just a simple and one of the more common practices during this time, with some rituals being more elaborate and luxurious, involving dancing geishas, sumo wrestlers, or envelopes thrown that are filled with candy and money.
Historically, the new year was thought to be a time when the spirit world became close to the physical world. Mamemaki would as a result have to be performed in order to drive away any wandering spirits that might happen too close to one’s home. Bringing tools inside the house that might normally be left outside, such as farming tools was also not uncommon in the past, because it was believed that if evil spirits picked them up, the tools would be used to harm their owners. Rice cakes were also balanced on windowsills. A whole range of things was done to prevent evil from coming close to people, and some take these rituals seriously even today, although most things now are done to uphold ritual for ritual’s sake.