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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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[DC notes to self and others in brackets]

Chapter 21


February 3, 1989   -   BEANING THE SPIRITS


"Oni wa soto!" (Devils out!) we shouted resolutely as we tossed small handfuls of roasted soybeans into the garden in front of our house.  "Fuku wa uchi!" (Good fortune inside!) we cried as we scattered the beans around the house.  We took turns.  I did the living room and Elin did the kitchen.  I threw them over our bed and she splattered the closet room.  I got the entranceway and our study and she did her classroom.  Then, to make sure, we covered the storeroom, toilet, bathroom, laundry area and hall.  Previously we had counted out and placed in teacups roasted soybeans equal in number to our ages.  These we ate in a ceremonial more than a gustatorial manner.  They were dry and crunchy.  Thus we completed our Setsubun (season dividing) ceremony.  For tomorrow is Risshun (spring stands), February fourth, the first day of spring according to the Japan­ese lunar calendar.  It's also the first day of the lunar year.  Convenience stores stock clear plastic bags filled with soy beans and cardboard devil masks which parents give to kids. 

We did the ceremony at home after having been instructed in detail by Okamura-san, the kind old housewife next door.  Earlier in the day I had called up my student Kubo-san and grilled her about it.  I like to call her because she's talkative and it's challenging Japanese practice.  But her husband was coming home that night as he does once or twice a week and so she was frantically cleaning the house and getting ready to go pick him up at the train station.  We agreed to pursue the topic at the MMC, the Monday Morning Class.

Having expunged the undesirable spirits and invited all that brings favor, Elin and I made some black tea with milk, tidied up the kitchen and moved into the study with our new computerized kerosene fan heater.  Soon it was blowing warm air into the cold room.  As soon as the heater turned off the heat would disappear through the uninsulated floor, ceiling and walls and it would turn right back on again.  There I studied Japanese and Elin sewed a few buttons for me before she went off to team teach with her friend, Hashimoto-san.  Periodically we stopped to kiss and say a few sweet things and already I could feel the benefit of our unusual morning ceremony.  A little time spent encouraging goodness and light is always worth the try.  It's not totally distinct from budgeting or exercise.  Later I will dance with the devils - until I do they will hide at the edge of our garden, waiting for moments of weakness and confusion.

I asked a couple of high school kids who came to study English with me about Setsubun but they didn't know anything and were even less interested.  "Louise" (we give them English names for class use) did say she was pretty sure we were supposed to have waited until nighttime for our ceremony.  They thought we were weird for having anything to do with it.  It was hard to tell because they were inexpressive like almost all the kids get after they enter junior high.  Except when "George" came in he stepped on a soybean and, looking down he said, "Ah, mamemaki," (scattered bean).


The next Monday morning the MMC met as always in our living room which was never intended to be a guest room because you have to walk through the kitchen to get there, a shocking tradition breaker.  On the far end are shoji doors, and a few feet beyond are sliding glass doors that lead to our garden.  The curtains were closed on the glass doors and the shoji were shut tight because it was a cold winter day - a cold winter day in which we discussed the earliest beginnings of spring.  Six of us sat on cushioned rattan furniture around a matching glass-topped table - all the legs set in rubber casters so as not to harm the tatami.  The cushions are of a leaf-vein design and the rattan is dark brown.  I always sit in the  high-backed rocker and Mr. Shimizu in the nonrocking chair.  Three ladies sat on the couch and the fourth, Etsuko-san, on a chair from the kitchen.  The gas heater was going strong and burning clean.  I asked them about Setsubun.

I was surprised that Shimizu didn't know much about it since he's my age and seems to know so much about everything.  He was dressed in his pressed and spotless brown work jumpsuit with the name of his liquor store on his breast pocket: SUPIRITSU MARUTO (Spirits Mart).  His face is smooth and expressive, his eyes always bright.  "Yes, tell me about scattering roasted soy beans," he said to the others in careful and correct English.  "We don't do such a thing at our home."

Kubo said that it's fun for little kids, but ever since hers were ten years old she's forgotten about Setsubun entire­ly.  When I phoned her earlier, it had reminded her that her son was trying to get into a good private school and she had better do all she could to help him out.

          "So I went out and bought roasted soy beans and we scattered them and wished for good fortune and ate some.  I had better not to take ... er uh ... any chance because my son likes to play at sports and he's not so sure like my daughter to be successful in his studies."  I watched her intently while she spoke.  She is so animated, always smiling to some degree - her large mouth opening wide exposing tongue and big white teeth.  And when she's saying something that might be embarrassing, she laughs nervously and talks faster.

She caused some discussion among the class members when she said that the number of beans one eats should be equivalent to one's age plus one.  The others said that they didn't know about this extra bean.  Finally it was agreed that both ways were okay.  The reason for the extra bean was that ages were computed differently prior to World War II.  Before then a person was considered one year old at birth.

Bespectacled Morikawa-san, the intellectual, slightly plump and outspoken professor's wife in her late fifties, said there's a woman who lives in one of the university houses who skewers a sardine head on a holly branch in front of her place on the first day of the lunar spring and changes it exactly a year later.  The other ladies went "Ehhhhhh?" together in rising pitch.

"I never heard so," said Mr. Shimizu.

I wondered how the sardine could still be there after a year.

"I do not know why she does it.  Maybe it's tradi­tion," said Mrs. Morikawa.

"The smell is to get away the devils," said Kubo and they ehed and ahed some more and we exchanged other details about the lunar spring, seasonal words for use in letters and poems and other fascinating tidbits.


To get my classes talking, I simply ask them about Japan - it's what they know and what they like to talk about.  It's an endless subject, a complex sport and a lifetime hobby.  But they were getting too excited and were beginning to lapse into the natural tongue for such discussions when I curtailed them with "English! Speak English!"  They started giggling and slowed down enough for me to insert a question.  "Why does the traditional spring start in the middle of winter?"

"It is sakidori," Shimizu said.  "It is very important word to Japanese.  It means to feel the season early before the real season.  It is also used in haiku and tanka poetry."  He then drew a circle representing the year and showed how the tradi­tional seasons all started six weeks earlier than the modern ones.

Bright young Etsuko-san, the only unmarried MMC member, mentioned how, as an elementary school teacher, she keeps up with seasonal events, making costumes with the kids and acting out myths.

Middle-aged Tanahashi-san, always so delicate and gentle, told about her two girls of eight and ten who eagerly look forward to throwing the roasted soy beans on the night of Setsubun.  She said they wore masks they made in school and that they ran around the garden being little devils while their parents threw beans at them and shouted: "Devils out!" And then the parents took their turn with the masks and the kids threw beans at them.  As she talked I watched her and listened to the soft tremble in her high, feminine voice.

"These ceremonies are for children," she said, "and teach them about seasons and are because we treasure children."  I loved the thought of her passing on her tenderness and the mysteries of the seasons to her daughters.  And, as much as Japanese people com­plain to me about how their culture is dying, I sensed this transmission extending in all directions.