Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A good day to throw beans

To balance out my previous post, time to mention something I love about Japan: it's a country which has not lost sight of its folklore.

One of the best places to experience this is Tono ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C5%8Dno,_Iwate ), in Iwate Prefecture, where you can cycle around the ricefields taking in the 'kappa' (imp) tales chronicled by Lafcadio Hearn and on which the local, pleasantly undeveloped tourist industry is built.

 (photos from August 2009 visit)

These are not the ghost stories for which Hearn is best known in the West: the film 'Kwaidan' vividly - but perhaps a little slowly - brought four other folk tales researched by him to international audiences. (Note to self: beware the Yuki-Onna!)

I have always loved the spookiest ghost stories, especially those with the whiff of genuine experience, and the Japanese sensibility for spirits and their coincidence with the changing seasons is one which finds in the British Volksgeist a distant soulmate. (Yet I suspect it's in the European countries such as Lithuania, where paganistic traditions remain deep-rooted and intact, that the popular sense of the supernatural has survived best of all.) It's also no coincidence that I love the songs of The Clientele - a modern-day band to which I readily declare an almost religious attachment amd who sing of phantom apparitions, seasons, bonfires and harvests (as the fad-seeking British public turn a deaf ear). Just like tomorrow in Japan, they bring a sense of the mystical to the everyday; numinous yet not out of place in modern (city) life.

Back to Okazaki. Wednesday will witness a malevolent visitor to school. One who's much more fun than an OFSTED inspector too. It's the festival of Mamemaki. I learnt about this yesterday, when I attended the Japanese equivalent of a 'Stammtisch' / French circle after school. By far the least proficient of the students attending, and the only representative of my Beginners' 'L' Class, I listened to others discuss what it is exactly. And, with the kind assistance of a teacher who occasionally searched vocabulary in her denshi-jisho, I picked out the odd relevant word so I could do some more homework back home. The key ones (with definitions from Wikipedia - sorry) are as follows:-

Setsubun (節分) - the day before the beginning of each season. "The name literally means "seasonal division", but usually the term refers to the spring Setsubun", which is tomorrow (3 February).

Risshun (立春) - the specific name for tomorrow's festival. "In its association with the Lunar New Year, Spring Setsubun can be and was previously thought of as a sort of New Year's Eve, and so was accompanied by a special ritual to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away disease-bringing evil spirits for the year to come. This special ritual is called mamemaki (豆撒き, lit. bean scattering)."

I read on. The bean scattering is "usually performed by the toshiotoko (年男) of the household (i.e., the male who was born on the corresponding animal year on the Chinese zodiac), or else the male head of the household. Roasted soybeans (called Fuku mame) are thrown either out the door or at a member of the family wearing an Oni (demon or ogre) mask, while the throwers chant "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" (鬼は外! 福は内!)." (Gaijin pronunciation of the latter phrase needs to be accompanied by appropriate body language to avoid any ambiguity / bruises. Especially since, during innocent dictionary-based homework, it came to my attention that 'mame' is a colloquialism for a part of the female genitalia once considered equally mythical.) "The words roughly translate to "Demons out! Luck in!" The beans are thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away the evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health with them. Then, as part of bringing luck in, it is customary to eat roasted soybeans, one for each year of one's life, and in some areas, one for each year of one's life plus one more for bringing good luck for the year to come."

In England, I'm sure such antics could safely be banned from schools on health and safety grounds. I mean, someone could slip on a bean, suffocate behind a mask, or even mispronounce 'fuku wa uchi'. But here it's embedded in the calendar, untainted by commercialism, and will be celebrated by over half the population, from the shiniest, highest office block to the fields of Tono.

Happy Risshun / Mamemaki to all back home! A special note to my sister: have a BEANY time, won't you?

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