Today was Setsubun, the bean-throwing festival. Setsubun is supposed to mark the last day of winter, but its timing is based on an old Chinese lunar calendar rather than realistic weather conditions. At temples across the country, people gather to wear plastic "oni", devil, masks and throw dried soybeans to scare off evil, yelling "Fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto!" ("Fortune in, devils out!"). Good fortune can be further assured by eating the number of soybeans equivalent to one's age. Cheap plastic oni masks and small packages of soybeans are sold at supermarkets and convenience stores.
We celebrated Setsubun at kindergarten today too. For weeks, the kids have been making their own oni masks out of paper and yarn. The Japanese devil has a mess of curly rainbow-colors clown hair, pointy teeth, and either one or two horns. He tends to dress like a caveman, and seems fond of eating live whole animals and children.
At 10:30 a.m., the children were gathered in their respective classrooms and issued their oni masks and an empty origami paper envelope. The teachers put a scant handful of dried soybeans into each cup, and the children donned their masks and crouched anxiously behind a table waiting for the devil. Some sat towards the front, boldly and full of excited smiles, others shook timidly in the corners and clutched their bean envelopes in terror. I knelt confused on the floor with a child in each arm, two on my lap, and one at my neck, and peered out at the playground clueless.
Drumbeats. The children's eyes burned and spun. A pink-haired devil appeared at the door, wearing the bus driver's shoes. 27 four-year olds screamed simultaneously.
Paper and pompoms-covered cardboard boxes and a willful suspension of disbelief had turned our small fleet of schoolbus drivers into a gang of child-hungry, bean-leery devils. A few unsuspecting kids at the front were pushed from behind towards the devils, and the bean-shower first trickled, then was unleashed. Soybeans rained on all sides from a height of three feet. The cardboard devils veered and retreated and lurched, fallen ammo was desperately scrambled-at and relaunched, cornered children wailed and were saved, and finally the pelted oni ran off in the direction of the five-year olds' class.
Congratulations were made, tears were wiped, the floor was swept, and the battle-weary children were gathered together for the victory speech. The teacher made it clear that, while we had won this battle, the only way to really assure our freedom from oni-harrassment was to listen to the teacher, be nice to each other, sing all our songs energetically, and eat all our food at lunch. Never have the lunch plates been so clean as they were today.