Today is Setsubun, the day before Spring in the old Japanese calendar. Across the archipelago, households mark the end of winter with the tradition of Mamemaki. After dark, and with all the lights switched off, the occupants in unison shout ‘Oni wa soto!’ (Demons stay out!) while throwing dried soya beans out a door or window, and then ‘Fuku wa uchi!’ (Luck stay in!), this time throwing beans around the room. Every room is exorcised, including the smallest.
We then set the tone for a prosperous New Year by feasting on make-your-own sushi, thick rolls of nori seaweed bulging with extravagant sashimi, roes and aromatic shiso nettle. These are eaten in silence while pointing ourselves and the sushi rolls in a designated direction, which for 2021 was south south east.
This banishing of evil spirits coincides with Lá ‘le Bhríde/St. Brigid’s Day, when fresh rush crosses would be placed above doorways across Ireland to protect their two- and four-legged inhabitants. My front door has its own Brigid’s Cross on the inside, and a small hook outside for two wreaths – pine cones at Christmas; pine needles and a crane on the (1st of Jan.) New Year.
My mother was a half Scots, County Antrim farmer’s daughter, and would always insist I first-footed her in the early hours of the new year before my ginger-haired older brother staggered home. It was she who taught me to salute magpies, and not walk under ladders. This latter advice has held me in good stead, as (probably) that all-important unwritten Irish rule: NEVER mess with the fairies, their forts or their thorn trees.
Of course, Setsubun is good fun, and it felt appropriate this of all years to push the boat out a wee bit and (fingers crossed) elicit a more rewarding four seasons than the last.
What other unchallenged beliefs do we choose to keep, in full knowledge that they don’t actually serve us?
(Photo: Mamemaki, Michael McCoy 2021)
Originally from the Ormeau Road in Belfast, Michael McCoy has worked with Japan for the past 30 years, and is a Tokyo-based executive coach.