text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Although the stereotype wants the Japanese (like all eastern Asians) to have rice as their prominent staple food, there is another seed (a legume, actually) that plays an equally important role and which goes unnoticed by many: the soybean. From the refreshing and salty edamame (枝豆) the basic companion to a summer beer to the disgusting to many, Westerners and Japanese alike, natto (納豆) which for most Japanese over 50 is considered the basic garnish for their morning rice and passing through the omnipresent soy sauce, it is hard to imagine Japan without soybeans; I say “Japan” instead of “Japanese cuisine” because their use isn’t limited to food. And among those alternative uses the most famous is that of February 3rd in the festival called “Setsubun” (節分).
According to the old Japanese calendar, this day is the last day of winter; as is the case with many traditions, the people characteristically ignore that the winter might have at least one more month to show its teeth. Literally, “setsubun” translates as “separation of seasons”, which means that there are four such days in the course of a year but because the winter-to-summer setsubun is the one closest to New Year’s (the Japanese and the Chinese from which both the calendar and the custom originally came) it is also the one celebrated more. And the soybean, the most convenient representative of Japan’s five important grains (the other four are rice, barley, millet and foxtail millet) couldn’t be absent from this celebration.
In homes and temples, commoners and priests throw baked soybeans to drive away the “oni” (鬼) demons that bring bad luck –especially in some big temples the beans are thrown to a crowd gathered to catch them since they are considered god luck talismans. The throwing of beans or “mame-maki” (豆撒き) is accompanied by the phrase “out with the oni, in with good luck” and somewhere here can be found the most plausible explanation why the beans were chosen instead of another grain: the phrase “to destroy the demons” is “mametsuke” (魔滅), the bean is “mame” (豆) and the Japanese can’t resist a good (or a bad) pun. Neither can they resist one more festival, one more pretext to get together and one more chance to give nature, even if only through one of its most humble fruits, the attention it deserves.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.