Setsubun "The Bean Throwing Festival"
At the beginning of February laughing and squealing children throw handfuls of roasted beans at a teacher or parent wearing a demon mask at schools across Japan; families in their homes chant, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Evil out! Good fortune in!) And the head of the household chucks a hand full of beans out the front door before slamming it shut. Bigger bean throwing ceremonies with more masked demons and demon dances are also held at shrines throughout the country.
Once all the chanting and bean throwing is over people eat a long, fat and uncut sushi roll in complete silence while facing the same direction. These are the traditions of Setsubun, the day before spring on the old lunar calendar in Japan.
Setsubun, the division of seasons, came to Japan from a Chinese tradition called “Tsuina” in the 8th century. Bean throwing, or mamemaki in Japanese, made its appearance in the Muromachi Period (the 14th-16th centuries) and served a purifying or cleansing purpose. The beginning of spring, which falls the day after Setsubun, also marked the beginning of a new year on the old lunar calendar and it was believed that throwing beans could drive away the evil spirits that can bring bad luck and illness in the coming year.
Eating a fat, uncut sushi roll, known as an ehomaki, is a modern tradition born in Osaka just to the west of Nara and only brought to national prominence in 1998 when 7 Eleven started selling ehomaki at stores nationwide. Ehomaki, meaning, “prosperity roll,” contain 7 ingredients, one for each of the 7 Shinto Deities of Good Luck, and are much thicker than the average sushi roll. They are filled with ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, carrots and cucumbers, fried egg, and fish like salmon and fresh water eel.
The ehomaki rolls are also not cut into smaller pieces when eaten because it is believed that doing so will cut off the luck of the person who eats it. They are also eaten in complete silence while facing the eho, or direction of prosperity (south-southeast in 2016), which changes with the year’s Zodiac sign. The ehomaki’s rise to popularity is a remarkable story of the ingenuity of Japanese business.
Business owners in Osaka established a Setsubun custom of eating fat sushi rolls known as Ko-unmaki or fortune rolls around the middle of 19th century. The sushi rolls were eaten, as their name suggests, to invite health and business prosperity in the coming year. In 1932 the Osaka Sushi Makers Union (OSMU) collaborated with the Seaweed Wholesalers Association (SWA) to sell these ko-unmaki to the public. Marketed as “Setsubun Marukaburi” the sushi rolls were so successful that by 1940 the Osaka Sushi Industry accepted and marketed Setsubun Marukaburi as if they were a long established tradition.
The OSMU and SWA resurrected the Setsubun Marukaburi after World War II and changed the name to ehomaki. After ehomaki received mention in a bestselling book in 1969 and after the establishment of an `Ehomaki Eating Contest’ in 1973, ehomaki began receiving national media attention and manufacturers expanded their market to convenience stores and supermarkets.
In 1983, Family Mart became the first convenience store chain to sell ehomaki. Stores in Osaka and Hyogo Prefectures enjoyed successful sales of the sushi rolls allowing Setsubun ehomaki, under the old Ko-unmaki name, to spread to Kyushu Island, Gifu, Hamamatsu and Niigata Cities in 1987. By 1995, 7 Eleven convenience stores throughout western Japan sold ehomaki. On the supermarket side, Daiei Supermarkets began selling ehomaki in Japan’s Kansai region (consisting of Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Nara, Wakayama and Shiga Prefectures) in 1980 and introduced sales in the Kanto Region (Tokyo and the surrounding area) in the early half of the 1990s. AEON, (formerly Jusco) shopping mall and supermarket giant took Setsubun sushi nationwide in 1992 and the rest is history.
By 2007, over thirty million ehomaki sushi rolls were being sold nationwide for sestubun. Despite its nationwide reach, ehomaki remains most popular in Kansai. It’s available at convenience stores and supermarkets throughout Nara and eating a sushi roll to pray for prosperity in 2016 has got to be the easiest and tastiest New Year’s/spring tradition ever devised.