IKIMASHO!

Oni wa soto! Setsubun at a Japanese kindergarten.

setsubun japanese kindergarten teaching

“The children were crying with fear. It was a success.”

These were the first words my coworker said to me as we took off our crudely made demon masks in a storeroom hidden in the back of the school. Half an hour before we had silently descended upon the kindergarten: bursting into classrooms and purposely trying to frighten the kids.

This is Setsubun, a festival held the day before the beginning of Spring in Japan. It’s accompanied by a special ritual called Mamemaki to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away evil spirits for the year to come. Traditionally roasted soybeans are thrown at a person dressed in a demon mask, while the people shout “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Demons out! Luck in!”) It dates back about 600 years.

In our case, the kids didn’t throw beans but instead ran and put on special masks they had made to scare us away. The older kids had a blast – doing their best to chase us and banish us from the kindergarten. To be fair, we didn’t look that scary, rather looking like rejects from Jim Henson’s Muppets. But the younger kids were terrified, and there were a lot of tears. Saying that, Mamemaki is an age-old Japanese tradition, and a unique way to strengthen bonds and unite forces against evil.

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The kids had no idea we were coming. We burst into the classrooms screaming and the look of terror on some of their faces was intense. But once a few kids started shouting “Oni wa soto!” then they all joined forces and chased us away, another example of promoting teamwork in Japan. During the course of the day kids came up to me and asked if I had seen the demons, unaware I was the one causing the panic. Throughout the week they have being drawing pictures of the demons they saw.

Setsubun Japanese kindergarten teaching

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