by Michelle "Ms. Geek" Klein-Hass

Ever since the Emperor Meiji embarked on a crash course of modernizing Japan, the Japanese have used the Gregorian calendar that almost the entire world uses. One of the biggest changes this wrought in the Japanese wheel of the year was that, unlike almost everywhere else in Asia, the New Year is celebrated on January 1st. Oshogatsu, the New Year festival, extends from late December to two weeks into January. It’s a big family time, when everyone gathers to celebrate. The Philippines also celebrates New Year on January 1st, which is understandable considering their Spanish and American influences. 

In almost all the rest of Asia, New Year is reckoned by the Lunar Calendar that has its origins in China. The New Year Festival is going on right now, and will continue until the end of the week. In Vietnam, this festival is called Tet. In South Korea, it’s called Seollal. Even Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia celebrates Lunar New Year. Thailand goes its own way, and celebrates Songkran according to the Lunar calendar, but at a different point in the year. This year it will be in the middle of April.

However, Lunar New Year is still considered a special time in Japan. Too much tradition is shared between Japan and China to just ignore this time of the year. So Japan has its Haru Matsuri, the Spring Festival, which begins every year around the beginning of February. Haru Matsuri starts with the observance of Setsubun.

There are two features of the holiday of Setsubun: the throwing of parched soybeans at a costumed or masked person pretending to be a demon, and the eating of a special rolled sushi with seven different items in it, uncut, burrito style, when facing the lucky direction of the year as determined by Feng Shui. The former goes back hundreds of years, the latter is a very recent addition to the holiday that made its way from Osaka and the Kansai region of Japan to the rest of Japan in the past two decades.

Oni: Japan’s ogre/demon/wrathful protector Yokai.

One thing that needs to be explained are Oni. They are Yokai, supernatural beings that dwell in the psyches (at least) of the Japanese. Most of the time they are depicted as horned, monstrous ogres who wear tiger skins as clothing and carry clubs studded with iron spikes.

You see similar creatures all over Asia, actually, going all the way back to India and their Rakshasas. It is said that Buddha, during his career preaching the Dharma, converted tribes of Rakshasas to Buddhism. They were then employed to protect temples, monasteries, and the monks living there. The image of the Rakshasa morphed into the “Wrathful Deities” of Mahayana Buddhism, the scary protectors who were propitiated. When Buddhism arrived in Japan, faces were given to the boogie-men who lurked in the woods according to Japanese mythology. 

Oni show up in anime and manga from time to time, and the golden era of anime gave us two particularly memorable Oni. They were not normal Oni, though, they were pretty ones. Rumiko Takahashi’s series Urusei Yatsura featured Lum, a love crazed alien whose race of aliens were, in the story, the inspiration for the Oni. Tiger-skin bikini and go-go boots, cute little horns…what’s not to like? Urusei Yatsura was a very popular series in its time, and influenced a lot of anime and manga going forward. In the fictionalized history of the Gainax animation studio, Otaku no Video, one of the members of the Otaku collective cosplays as Lum. 

The other example from anime’s golden age is a bit more obscure. 3 x 3 Eyes, pronounced Sazan Eyes, featured Pai, another cute Oni. Pai is not called an Oni in the series, but instead is called a Sanjiyan Unkara, or Triclops. Pai is also love-crazed (pattern?) and is trying to become a human instead of a supernatural creature. The manga-ka who created 3 x 3 Eyes, Juzo Takada, seems to have been very fond of the idea of a non human humanoid who wants to be completely human: one of his other series, All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, centered around an android robot (andro-robo in the series) with the brain of a cat, and a desire to be thought of as human.

Setsubun happens on February 3rd this year. So get yourself some crunchy parched soybeans, (they are sometimes called soy nuts) eat as many as years you’ve been alive plus one, and watch out for big scary dudes with horns and maybe three eyes. It’s easy to get rid of them, just throw parched soybeans at them. 鬼は外! 福は内! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! Demons out, good luck in!