Article: Setsubun

Originally posted to Sushicam.

Setsubun, the Japanese term for the lunar changing of the seasons, is celebrated in the spring on February 3 or 4 (February 3 this year). Here’s a brief Wikipedia explanation of the festival, here’s a snapshot of this year’s festivities from Marie Mockett of Japundit, and here’s an interesting (and somewhat disturbing) story of how Setsubun was celebrated at a kindergarten. has an interesting cultural note about Setsubun:

Traditionally, Japanese people eat thick sushi rolls, facing the good fortune direction for the year. The direction of this year is south-south-west. Try eating a whole sushi roll without talking.

How do you figure out which direction is lucky? Here’s a little more information, from the recipe page:

To eat fortune rolls, face toward the good fortune direction of the year at first. The good fortune direction is where the fortune god, Tokutoku-shin, stays. The good fortune direction changes every year. Then, hold a sushi roll and eat it, making wishes. You shouldn’t talk until you are done with eating a whole sushi roll. It’s said that good fortune will be gone if you talk.

I googled Tokutoku-shin and found…nothing! There is a God of Fortune named Ebisu in Buddhism (and Kotoshiro-nushi-no-kami in Shinto), but this does not appear to be the same thing. (You do offer soybeans to Ebisu at Setsubun, though.)

A search for Setsubun and good fortune turned up this Economist article:

COME February 3rd in Japan, you might wonder at the strange sight of people trying to face precisely south-south-east while gulping down long, fat sushi rolls in one go. It is a triumph of marketing. The occasion is Setsubun, the day before the symbolic start of spring, when people ward off demons and usher in good luck. Like other festivals around the world, it is being commercialised. In Japan Setsubun looks set to become as much a boom for stores and restaurants that sell sushi rolls as Valentine’s Day has become for other retailers.

The “good-fortune-direction rolls” were originally cooked up by sushi-chefs and makers of nori (dried-seaweed, which covers the rolls) in the late 1940s in Osaka. Legend has it that a famous samurai gulped one down before winning a battle. Usually the rolls are cut into chunks, but these cannot be sliced because that would cut good fortune–or so the marketers would have it. The direction that the gobbler has to face is determined by a fortune-telling formula, which shows where the “good-luck” god of the year sits.

It’s still unclear whether the Osakan sushi vendors created their own god of fortune, or just applied their new story to Ebisu. In any case, is it south-south-west or south-south-east this year?

Here’s a good Setsubun roundup at MIT Japanese Culture Notes, with a little more information about the fortune roll.

In the Kansai area, some people also observe Setsubun by eating an uncut sushi roll (maki-zushi) while facing towards this year’s “lucky direction.” This direction depends upon the zodiac sign of the year. For instance, [in] 1996, the year of the mouse, the direction was south-south-east. On this one day, sushi shops don’t cut their sushi rolls, but leave them whole.

I still don’t know who the “god of fortune” is or which direction I should face, but since it’s still February 3 here in the US, I might see if I can’t find a fortune roll to eat. (Any excuse to enjoy sushi!)