Happy Setsubun!

It’s now February, and February third is “Setsubun” in Japan. It’s very old and traditional. I believe the traditions associated with it are Japanese in origin. (Many old Japanese customs originate in China, but have become so assimilated into Japan that it can be difficult to know what is actually Chinese in origin and what is Japanese in origin.)

Setsubun is a fun holiday. Usually somebody is the “oni” (a word that can not be translated accurately into English, but is usually translated as “devil.” I don’t like this translation as oni is probably more of a monster or troll…… Like I said, the word can not be accurately translated.)

A person plays the Oni, representing bad luck or misfortune. People (usually kids) throw mame (dried soybeans) at him/her to drive the Oni out of the house, ridding the house of bad luck for the coming spring.  In our region of Tohoku, peanuts in the shell are often used instead of soybeans.

Every year, I do this tradition when I teach English. However, it’s difficult to translate the Japanese:

鬼は外!Oni wa soto!

Literally it is: Oni out!

This sounds awkward in English, so there are a huge number of translations of the phrase Oni wa soto! in English.

There are many Setsubun picture books in Japan, often depicting an adorable Oni. Honestly, who could not love these guys?????!!!!!!

(photo from Amazon.co.jp)

But unfortunately there are no picture books in English that are about Setsubun. I decided to use a much loved picture book because even though it does not depict a Japanese Oni, it does depict a monster. And it teaches “Go away!” That’s basically the meaning of Oni wa soto! Hey, bad guy get outta here!

And the phrase “Go away!” is so useful because my students can use it not only with monsters, but also robbers, mean dogs, siblings, and so on.

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