Setsubun

By: Rora

Feb 04 2011

Category: Japan

1 Comment

“Weird” Japan sells.

And it’s interesting, right? I remember watching this video before I came to Japan, and thinking what a lot of non-Japanese people would think: “Japan is so weird.” This clip is pretty famous: there are a lot of versions of it on youtube and each version has over 20,000 views. And I bet that every person watching it had the same word pop into their head while watching it.

It’s easy to call things weird. It’s also, at this point, a boring discussion to have when it comes to Japan. This isn’t a country filled with weirdos or fetishists. Even perfectly rational and empathetic people can get suckered into the “weird Japan” fascination because yes, Japan is incredibly and deeply different from our society in many ways, yet we are both first world, democratic nations with high gross personal incomes and standards of living.

Turns out there is a deeper history, beyond prank tv shows, of using demons and zombies to scare kids, and it even ties into a holiday, Setsubun. On Setsubun, demons visit kids, and the kids fight back by throwing soybeans. They shout “oni wa soto, fuku wa ushi,” which means “out with the devil, in with good luck.” The holiday falls on the first day of spring by the Japanese lunar calendar.

At school for the Setsubun celebration, my coworker put on a red clown wig, a mexican wrestler mask, a big red hooded shirt that had furry sleeves, and a plastic bat covered with tin foil (complete with tin foil spikes). The kids were ready, with their bags of beans, and my coworker ran in and ambushed them. At first nobody cried, and everybody thought it was funny. The demon retreated, and I assumed it was all over. But she came back. Again, and again. After about five minutes, a lot of the kids were crying. Many of them reacted like the kids in the zombie video, punching the demon and trying to protect their friends. One kid, with a naughty reputation, was dragged into the hallway by himself and told “LISTEN TO YOUR TEACHERS!!” It was entertaining, until I looked down and realized two kids were ferociously clinging to my legs, wailing uncontrollably. Let me remind you that my students are between 2 and 6 years old.

While it did remind me of the notorious zombie youtube clip, my reaction to Setsubun was different. Being here, in person, you tend to stop thinking about whether or not Japan is weird, and not just because the novelty wears off. Things just make a lot more sense in context. I didn’t find Setsubun as hilarious as my coworkers (most of whom are Japanese) but I do believe the kids are resilient enough to handle it, which was a concern I had for the zombie fighting kids on YouTube. And, sure enough, twenty minutes later everybody was fine. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to teach kids how to deal with fear, so long as it’s done right.

A note on the picture above: I went to write this post and realized I didn’t have any pictures of Setsubun related things! So I found one on flickr, here to be precise. So cute!

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One comment on “Setsubun”

  1. Love the picture of the cat with the mask on. Perfect for Setsubun!!


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