Japan shouts "Evil be gone!" as Setsubun Festival celebrated

08:17, February 04, 2010      

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Scores of people of all ages across Japan yelled the words:"Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" on Wednesday, as they threw roasted beans at symbolic monsters, ogres and demons on the day of Setsubun Festival unique to the country.

The choruses of: "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" literally mean: ' Get out evil! Come in Happiness!' and hearing these shouts and accompanying rituals can only mean one thing, the celebration of Setsubun is swinging into gear in Japan.

To the uninitiated, this annual festival may seem a little perplexing and even scary to some, as the colorful masks people were to represent "evil," depicting monsters and demons of every description imaginable, are pretty realistic -- to the point that a lot of young kids end up in tears as demons and monsters dance around popular shrines and temples across Japan.

"The monsters are really scary," said a tearful 5-year old Kazuki Maeda, who soon perks up after he launches a fistful of beans into a monsters face -- Kazuki has an impressive arm for a 5-year old, a future in baseball may well beckon.

"But I feel okay now, because I've defeated the monster with the beans," said Kazuki, visibly more confident and reloading himself with another fistful of beans, just in case.

Young Kazuki and his mother are at what many consider to be one of Japan's most venerable Buddhist shrines, known as Sensoji Temple (also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple), in Tokyo's downtown Asakusa district.

The temple and the Asakusa district are a hot-spot for foreign tourists, as the area is deemed to be "quintessentially Japanese", with its temples, shrines, quaint shopping boulevards and general air of antiquity.

"We come to Senjoji Temple every year to celebrate Setsubun," explains Yoshiko Maeda, 33, mother to Kazuki. "The history of this particular temple and the rituals carried out by the priests to cast out evil, welcome in goodness and blessings for happiness and prosperity, as winter leaves and spring begins, are fascinating and fun too," says Yoshiko, having thrown more than a few beans at monsters herself.

THE BASICS

Hovering, outside the phenomenal, Senjoji Temple gate, known as Kaminarimon or "Thunder Gate", with its blazing red pillars, is a group of French tourists, mildly alarmed by the priests dressed as monsters and members of the public assaulting them with beans.

It became this writer's duty to explain to the visitors what was going on and that they too were welcome to do some bean throwing or, alternatively, have a few thrown at them if they prefer. After all, what's a festival without some active participation?

Our European guests learn that Setsubun in Japan generally always precedes the lunar New Year and its celebration dates back to the 14th century, or the Muromachi Era, as its known locally. This era saw the emergence of a number of customs and traditions generally associated with Japan and its people, such as the tea ceremony (chanoyu or chado (sometimes pronounced sado)) and traditional flower arranging (ikebana).

Setsubun, takes place about 10-days before the lunar New Year and in the Muromachi Era it took on a symbolic and ritual significance relative to its association with prospects for a " returning sun", associated climatic change, renewal of body and mind, expulsion of evil, symbolic rebirth, and preparation for the coming planting season. Or, put simply, marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

Over the centuries the celebration of the coming of spring has evolved into the practice of "Mame maki" or the throwing of beans to chase away evil spirits associated with the dark and cold of winter.

Oftentimes, the man of the house who is born in the animal sign of the coming year (the tiger for this year) will throw beans within his house or at someone dressed as a monster or evil spirit, and will holler the phrase "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" over and over again, until the monster is (symbolically) vanquished.

Following the exorcising of evil, family members pick up the number of beans corresponding to their age, as eating these beans assures good fortune in the coming (lunar) year.

THE ACTION

Now, seeming slightly less confused, our French friends purchase bags of roasted beans and one of the more culturally inquisitive of the group throws a handful in the face of the person who has just kindly explained the idiosyncrasies of this age-old festival to him in intricate, historical detail.

Oh well, what's a festival without some active participation?

Shouts of "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ring out in unison as a colorful procession of priests, some wearing monster masks, makes its way out of the inner sanctum of Sensoji Temple, through the gates and onto the streets.

Drums beat and beans cascade down on everyone. Young Kazuki takes aim and peppers a priest with a handful of beans -- on any other day this lad would be in serious trouble.

"That's the ninth monster I've defeated!" exclaims Kazuki, adding that, "One more and that's ten!"

As the procession rolls on, beans are thrown, counted and eaten and it appears that in Asakusa, Tokyo today, a great deal of evil has been cast out, let's hope it's the same across the nation -- and the world for that matter.

Source: Xinhua
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