By Alexander Brown
The Japanese national festival of setsubun is a day of massive cultural significance to Japan, long serving to drive demons out and usher in good fortune in the new Lunar Year. From the start of January to the start of February, it’s impossible to forget the season, with seasonal sales drives and traditional celebrations taking place at every turn. In this article, we cover the history of setsubun, popular methods of celebration, and how Japanese retailers use it as an opportunity for seasonal marketing.
When Does Setsubun Happen?
Setsubun is an annual Japanese festival that takes place on the last day of the Japanese lunar new year – between the 2nd and 4th of February. In this way, like seijin no hi, it does not have a fixed date. Unlike occasions such as seijin no hi however, it is not a national holiday. It is still a hugely popular festival though, with huge crowds gathering at public ceremonies across Japan yearly, and many privately celebrating in their homes.
Want to learn more about seijin no hi – Coming of Age Day? Read our article on the subject here.
The History of Setsubun
Setsubun is largely derived from the Chinese folk traditional festival of tsuina, which Shoku Nihongi – an official historical text from the Heian Period (794-1185 AD) claims was first held in Japan in 706. It involved warding off evil spirits on the last day of the Lunar New Year – hence setsubun‘s focus on driving out oni and bringing in good fortune.
While a Japanese festival, tsuina has entirely Chinese roots, being thought to have come from the Chinese nuo folk religion, which focuses heavily on exorcism. In the nuo folk religion, rituals involving temples and shamans are performed in order to empower the gods so that they can defeat evil spirits – warding off disaster, disease and general misfortune.
Setsubun in its current form however, began largely with the tradition of mamemaki – which we cover in a later section – when it became popular with the aristocratic and samurai classes in the the late Muromachi Period (1336-1573 AD). While mamemaki indeed takes centre stage, other traditional practices have risen to popularity since, all focusing on driving out oni. But what are oni?
Oni – Japanese Demons
Oni are Japanese demons or ogres – general evil monsters of folklore. In said folklore, they’re traditionally pictured as hulking, evil, malicious humanoid monsters with large horns and tusks, carrying clubs and wearing loincloths. They have been believed to bring bad luck, causing disease and misfortune.
Oni are typically shown as being a wide range of colours, but the most popular depictions are perhaps of red and blue oni – and this reflects in setsubun seasonal sales drives, which we will cover in a later section.
As mentioned earlier, the season is all about driving out oni and the misfortune they bring, and ushering in good fortune in the new Lunar Year. Let’s go over some of the traditional ways in which oni are driven out.
Most of the traditions surrounding setsubun are focused on the act of driving out oni – demons in Japanese folklore, and ushering in good fortune and happiness. Due to this, if you visit Japan during the season, you are sure to see lots of oni imagery wherever you go, with red and blue oni masks being sold at supermarkets and special setsubun promotions with oni imagery.
Setsubun Bean Throwing – mamemaki
The first and perhaps the most well-known, is mamemaki – where people will scatter beans in order to ward off demons and bring fortune, often chanting “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi”. But why do people throw beans at setsubun?
The legend behind this tradition tells that in the 10th Century, a priest fended off oni on Mt. Kurama (north of Japan’s traditional capital of Kyoto) by throwing roasted soybeans at their eyes, blinding them. As such, the throwing of roasted soybeans mimics this legend, driving away oni. It’s notable that the Japanese word for bean is mame, which sounds similar to both mame – meaning “demon eye”, and mametsu – meaning “demon destruction”.
Mamemaki bean throwing is often done at home or in schools. There, people will open windows and doors before scattering beans around the house in order to ward of demons, often chanting “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” – meaning “Demons, out! Good fortune, in!”. Closing them, the oni are banished, protecting the household from their malevolent influence. Parents or teachers will also often dress up as oni to play with their children, letting them act out driving away the oni and getting pelted with soybeans.
It’s also traditionally thought to be good luck to eat a number of soybeans thrown equal to one’s age. Some people find the idea of eating the beans they’ve thrown onto the floor unappealing, and so special mamemaki bean bags are sold, where beans can be thrown in the bag before being eaten.
Setsubun mamemaki at shrines and temples
Mamemaki also commonly take place at shrines and temples across Japan, drawing large crowds, especially in the popular spots.
Generally, priests will perform a chant from a raised platform, before saying “fuku wa uchi“, and tossing beans into the crowd. While rituals will differ slightly between locations, at many temples (such as Tokyo’s famous Sensouji temple) they specifically do not mention the “oni wa soto” part of this line, as it’s thought that there would be no oni in the presence of Avalokiteshvara (the Buddhist deity of compassion). Visitors will try and catch these beans, often thrown in bags as above rather than loose, for good luck.
It’s also common for celebrity guests to appear at such events. For example, in 2023, the cast of the anime Demon Slayer (鬼滅の刃) made an appearance at Sensouji Temple, making for a striking intersection of Japanese modern pop culture and old tradition. Furthermore, in 2018, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and popular actress Maya Miki appeared at setsubun celebrations at Hie Shrine – also in Tokyo.
Ehoumaki – setsubun Sushi Rolls
Ehoumaki – literally meaning “lucky direction sushi roll”, are a type of uncut sushi roll traditionally eaten on setsubun. It’s considered to bring good fortune to eat the entire thing in one sitting, while facing in the year’s lucky direction – ehou. It’s thought that by eating the whole thing in one go, you are accepting good luck and prosperity for the year to come. This “lucky direction” changes yearly, having been South-South-East in 2023.
Ehoumaki are thought to have originated in Japan’s western Kansai region (covering Kyoto and Osaka) between the Edo and Meiji periods. In recent years however, the tradition has spread throughout the country, becoming popular in Tokyo as well.
Certain stores release limited edition ehoumaki based on the zodiac sign of the year. For example, 2021 was the year of the ox, so the Toubu department store in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district released limited-edition beef-wrapped ehoumaki. Japanese consumers respond well to limited-edition (時間限定) sales drives, and successful retailers in Japan make sure not to miss opportunities such as these.
There have been sustainability concerns following its quickly growing popularity however. Increasing demand for ehoumaki in recent years and a resultant increase in their production has resulted in mass-food waste yearly, with konbini convenience stores and supermarkets across Japan throwing out unsold ehoumaki the day after due to their short shelf life.
Hiiragiiwashi – Warding oni Away
While this practice is generally unpopular outside of areas of Kansai such as Nara Prefecture, there is an old tradition where people impale roasted sardine heads on holly branches, making hiiragiiwashi and attach them by their front doors. In this case, hiiragi means holly olive (a type of holly native to Japan) and iiwashi means sardine, making the name quite self explanatory.
This practice used to be more common, but has indeed dropped in popularity over the decades and is now a more rare sight. During the setsubun season however, it can still be seen around Nara, a city steeped in tradition due to its position as the former capital of Japan for many centuries.
It’s traditionally been thought that demons will be scared away by the thorns of the holly, and warded off by the smell of the sardines.
Setsubun Seasonal Marketing
As mentioned prior, setsubun is yet another important event in Japan’s seasonal marketing calendar. With most setsubun marketing campaigns starting in January, soon after the end of Christmas, it’s important not to underestimate the draw that both seasonal and limited-time offers have for Japanese consumers. Let’s dive into some examples of what Japanese companies do to promote themselves and drive sales using the season.
Nissin Foods – Limited Edition Red oni Pickled Ginger Instant Tempura Soba Noodles
On the 17th of January 2022, Nissin Foods (particularly well-known for their instant ramen products) released their “Red oni Pickled Ginger Instant Soba Noodles” (赤鬼紅生姜天そば). These are a striking bright red in colour, and feature oni imagery on the packaging, making them relevant to setsubun and an eye-catching example of Japan’s seasonal marketing.
Seijo Ishii Supermarket setsubun Sale
Like many Japanese supermarkets, high-end supermarket Seijoishi held their annual setsubun sale this year.
While the promotion above may seem overwhelming to consumers in the West, it is actually a strong example of how information is conveyed differently in Japan. In the West, brevity and conciseness are commonly prioritised, as it’s understood that people will be overwhelmed and struggle to take things in when faced with too many details.
In Japan however, people are more accustomed to dealing with materials that are densely packed with information, just like the flier above. Train station direction boards are also a great example of this. What may look cluttered and complicated to a Western eye, makes perfect sense to Japanese consumers. This kind of cultural interpretation and differing “common sense” is something that must be considered when marketing in Japan – including during your setsubun marketing drive!
Setsubun is a time-tested tradition that’s kept its relevance in Japan for centuries, even as the country has undergone massive change. Stemming from Chinese folk religion, it gives Japanese people a chance to learn about folk legends and participate in fun, local culture, with the country awash with imagery of red and blue oni for a limited time each year. The season is also a massive seasonal marketing opportunity for many retailers, who make sure not to miss out on their chance to drive sales.
As Japan continues to change at a more rapid pace than ever, it’s important to keep on top of the latest cultural trends, and stay keyed in on market opportunities to really connect with Japanese consumers. This is where we come in. Tokyoesque has extensive experience providing real, actionable insights on Japanese consumers that arm businesses with the knowledge and awareness they need to excel in the Japanese market. Interested in the expert local insights our multicultural, bilingual team provide? Contact Tokyoesque.
See also: Culture Day in Japan
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