Wednesday, March 17, 2010



Setsubun means ‘seasonal division’ and is celebrated in Japan on February 3 to welcome the first day of spring in the lunar calendar.

When I was a child Groundhog’s Day was one of my favorite holidays. On February 2nd, I’d wake up hoping to see a groundhog pop up out of the snow. I hoped that it would be a sunny day, so he’d see his shadow and go back down his hole for a longer winter. Now I pray for clouds, for the groundhog to emerge from his burrow, for the light to return, and the nubs of flowers to poke through the hard earth.

I wonder why seeing his shadow terrifies the groundhog. He happily slumbers in the darkness all winter. Does he think the shadow is a predator? Or is it the brilliance of the sun that threatens him, the abrupt change from darkness to light? Perhaps, like many of us in the winter, we want to hibernate a bit longer before springing forward into the vernal energy.

When John and I lived in our little wooden hut in Kyoto on the ‘street of pines,’ I celebrated Setsubun in the Japanese way (with a few variations, of course.) The ritual is to throw soybeans around the house while shouting

Oni wa soto!

Fuku wa uchi!

‘Devils out. Happiness in.’ I loved the sound of the chant and usually got carried away, tossing handfuls of beans out into the snow. Why throw the beans in the house when you’re trying to expel the devil? The second part of the ritual is to eat the number of beans corresponding to your age. I didn’t like the taste of soybeans so I left them in the snow for birds or animals or for the groundhog of my childhood.

Shortly after returning to the U.S., I was invited to teach my nephew’s fourth-grade class in California. It was Japan Week, early February, and I gave a lesson on haiku and the observance of Setsubun. The kids were eager and open to anything Japanese. For the language lesson we practiced ‘Oni wa soto. Fuku wa uchi! which I’d written on small strips for each of them. We then sewed small pouches out of Japanese fabrics and placed soybeans inside. ‘When you get home,’ I told them ‘toss the beans outside while chanting ‘Oni wa soto. Fuku wa uchi!

I found out later from their teacher (who sewed her own bag and filled it with an undisclosed number of beans) that one mother had complained to the school that they were teaching her child voodoo rituals! So much for cultural exchange.

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