Sunday, 3 February 2013

Dividing of the Seasons 節分

A very scary ogre
 Today is Setsubun, one of my favourite seasonal festivals. Unfortunately I am stuck under the kotatsu blowing my nose and can't enjoy it much this year though [/selfpity]. I was going to write a nice educational post all about what Setsubun is and how to celebrate it, but there are so many good posts on the topic that you should really read those instead. Like Fran-Japani's. Or Gaijin Wife's.
 In summery, dried soybeans are thrown while saying “ogres out, fortune in”. This is meant to both ensure a safe and fortunate year and also to bring spring on. I say “ogre” here for the Japanese “oni”. Some people translate oni as devil. I think that’s because they are often red and have horns. Otherwise it’s a silly translation. The oni live in mountains, carry clubs and dress in tiger pelts. They carry off and eat children. My perspective is skewed because I first encountered oni in the picture book “The Red Ogre Who Cried”. It’s a beautiful book about a gentle oni. Anyway, it’s traditional for someone to dress as an oni so that really little kids can throw beans AT THEM, making the whole thing more exciting. This isn't some kind of morality tale where kids get to triumph over the oni though. It's all about the age-honoured Japanese tradition of scaring the crap out of tiny children. In all seriousness, I think it's great. This video is from a kindergarten. As you can see, the Oni don't hold much back. Notice that the boy who repeatedly tries to stand up to the Oni and throw his beans at them gets particularly targeted, eventually getting "abducted". This is a common "Oni" tactic. Can't have the kids being too brave!

In years past my delightful partner got to play the role of oni at the preschool where he worked. The staff prepared a hit-list of children for the oni (including the girl who had told everyone she “wasn’t afraid of ogres”). The kids (some of whom are as young as two) were gathered in a room and sang a song to cheer themselves up. The Mr and his fellow oni came stomping down the hall, banging on the walls; at first in time with the song but gradually increasing the tempo until the song could not drown out the sound. They burst into the room and began terrifying the children, throwing the targeted kids over their shoulders and dragging them away to a store room. One kid remembered his beans and valiantly flung them with all his might, trying to rally his friends into defensive formation, but it so happened that he too was on the hit-list and he was promptly dragged away. The reduction of tiny children to terrified sobbing messes is a much beloved part of the pre-school experience here. I’m sure they’ll laugh about it one day… The terror didn’t stop there, however. The staff kept it up for weeks. A group of kids went to the toilet and some came back before another; the Mr was furious with them for “abandoning” their friend “when you know there are ogres around”. They were tearfully bracing themselves to go back out into the newly terrifying corridors to secure their friend when he returned in one piece. The sound of road works nearby was designated as “ogres beating their clubs”. Any staff member who hadn’t been seen for a while was presumed eaten. Hilarious fun for all the adults and probably only mildly scaring for the kids. In all seriousness though, I think the mixture of terror but suspicion that it's probably actually completely safe makes for a good experience for the kids. They get the exhilaration of the adrenaline but they can "check in" with their caregivers and see that they aren't genuinely panicking at the same time. It's like a safe way to experience a real fright. Much better than roller-coasters. Setsubun isn't the only occasion that kids get terrified by the way, just the only time they are given ammunition to fight back with. This "kidnapping" was during an Obon dance.

One of the tiny elementary schools (a total of ten students at the time I taught there) I taught at held a summer "camp" at the school (it's between a river and a forested mountain) where the kids were challenged to climb the mountain in the dark with flash-lights. The teachers and enthusiastic local sadists hid in the forest and stalked them (rustling the bushes and making weird noises) or even jumping out at them. Not a single kids made it all the way up the mountain without freaking out and running for his or her life back down to the school!
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