It’s hard to know what to do as Christian in Japan sometimes. Of course, it’s always hard to be a Christian in any culture, because that culture will be a mix of good and bad. Plus, even committed Christians will often disagree on what is the right thing to do because the lines between right and wrong are fuzzy sometimes. A good American example is Halloween: originally a thoroughly pagan celebration of spirits, now a fun chance to dress up in goofy costumes and eat candy. Is it ok for a Christian to participate or not? Hard call. The Japanese holiday called Setsubun is equally perplexing and difficult to deal with.
The basic idea of Setsubun (which is held every February 3 rd ) is to drive away the Oni (evil spirits, demons, or ogres) that cause bad health and bring misfortune, and to invite blessing or luck inside. Oni usually look something like this (you can get these kinds of cheap cardboard masks at any grocery store):
The tradition is to throw roasted soybeans or peanuts out the door (or at a member of the family wearing an oni mask) while chanting, “Oni outside! Blessing (or luck) inside!” Then you gather up the now-lucky beans or peanuts eat the same number of as your age–for good luck, of course. Here’s a video I took at one of my schools of kids gathering all the lucky peanuts they could:
(You can hear one of the teachers shouting “Fuku wa uchi!” (“blessing inside!”) over the microphone.)
Now, to be flat honest, most Japanese people don’t believe for a second that there are red-faced monsters at the root of their lives’ problems, or that with a few handfuls of peanuts they can chase away misfortune and bring happiness. These are sophisticated, educated, modern people; they’re not stupid. But they still do all kinds of superstitious things, either because of tradition, or because it’s fun for the kids, or because they figure it can’t hurt and might just help them out somehow. It’s sort of like hedging your spiritual bets–which of course is a big no-no, biblically speaking.
So, what should our response be? What is the right thing to do? After much research, the only conclusion we’ve come to is that it’s a hard call, and it will be different for different people. As for Jen and I, we still don’t know exactly where we fall, but we have some serious concerns that keep us from seeing Setsubun as mere harmless fun. So we may one day find ourselves trying to explain why we won’t throw beans with everyone else. Lord, grant us wisdom and grace to give a good response in that day. After all, Satan has fallen like lightning from heaven, and we have already been blessed with every blessing in Christ. What need do we have of peanuts and empty chants?
At any rate, maybe one day we’ll see the culture change to the point where people are praying, “Satan outside! Jesus inside!” every February 3 rd . May that day come soon!
I asked my student: If you can throw the devil out with beans on Feb 3rd, why don’t you throw beans everyday of the year?
love your blogs!