Setsubun – “Japan’s Imbolc”

Setsubun – “Japan’s Imbolc” January 28, 2016

Setsubun
Roasted soy beans and oni masks for Setsubun. By katorisi (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The first few days of February are significant in a number of cultures and religions. Pagans celebrate February 1st or 2nd as Imbolc, Christians celebrate it as Candlemas or St Brigid’s Day, while America observes February 2nd as Groundhog Day, to name a few examples. Japan is no exception, where February 3rd is celebrated as Setsubun (節分).

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Painting of an oni being driven out by beans by Katsushika Hokusai. Public Domain.

Commemorating the beginning of spring, the primary theme of Setsubun is cleansing the home and community of negative energy and inviting positive energy in. The most common purification ritual held throughout Japan at Setsubun is mamemaki, or “bean scattering.” People toss roasted soy beans outside their homes, or at a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple. Sometimes, one person will wear a mask depicting an oni – a usually malicious mythological creature often translated as “demon” in English. The others will throw the beans at the person in the oni mask, symbolically driving away evil spirits. At the same time, they cry out “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi,” or “Demons out, fortune in!” In addition to the oni, there is another mask that one might see depicted at Setsubun: Otafuku. A comical-looking woman whose  face often resembles buttocks, a phallus or female genitalia in shape, Otafuku is a symbol of luck, happiness and fertility. But what’s particularly interesting about Otafuku is that she may be an aspect of a significant Shinto deity.

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Giant Otafuku decoration at Kokura Yasaka Shrine. By Nissy-KITAQ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
In one of the most important Shinto myths, the sun Goddess Amaterasu Oomikami is terrorised by her brother, the storm God Susanoo-no-Mikoto. Amaterasu is so frightened that she hides herself in a cave, taking her warmth and light with her. She is only persuaded to leave the cave by the comical and sensual dancing of Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, Goddess of mirth. Due to her role in encouraging the sun Goddess to leave her cave, Uzume is a symbol of returning light and banishing the darkness – and thus represents spring’s return after winter. She would therefore be a fitting emblem for Setsubun. This, added to the fact that depictions of Uzume tend to resemble Otafuku, gives weight to the theory that Otafuku may be Uzume by another name. This post in the Green Shinto blog by John Dougill explores the connection between Uzume and Otafuku in more detail. I find it fascinating that Uzume has so much in common with the Pagan deity Brigid. Both are Goddesses who are celebrated at the beginning of February, and both are symbols of light, fertility and joy. Indeed, Imbolc and Setsubun have much in common, right down to their basic theme of purity and new beginnings. I have heard several Pagans mention that to them, Imbolc feels more like “New Year” than Samhain or Yule, and the Japanese might agree with you. Setsubun does in fact have its origins in the old Lunar Calendar of Japan, in which New Year fell at the beginning of spring. It seems that in so many cultures, spring is a time for banishing and forgetting any unpleasantness of the year past, to make way for a hopeful outlook on the year ahead as the sun’s light returns.

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