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Letters from Tokyo, February 2022: Throw Those Beans!

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

T.S. Eliot famously called April the cruelest month. But for me and many I know, the cruelest month is the shortest, February, especially if you live in chillier parts of the northern hemisphere. In Tokyo, New Year’s greetings and shinnenkai drinking parties start to go stale, while the dark, cold, snow-dusty winter keeps hanging around like a guest who won't leave.

Fortunately, February in Tokyo has some strategically placed distractions to help us forget that it’s February.

On the third, we had our Setsubun rituals, heralding the arrival of spring and giving winter the memo to move on. We tossed roasted soybeans out our front door to cast away demons and welcome good fortune, shouting Oni wa soto! and Fuku wa uchi!. Then we tossed some beans around the house, where they crackled softly underfoot until they were vacuumed.

You're supposed to eat one soybean for each year of your life, but that's become several beans too many for me, so I only had a couple. We also ate eho-maki, the thick, stuffed and uncut good-luck sushi rolls while facing north-northwest, this year’s lucky direction—though I can no longer eat one of those in a single sitting either. Too much good luck for me to handle, I guess.

The next day saw the start of the Winter Olympics just a stone’s throw away in Beijing. Okay, to throw a stone that far you'd have to have the arm of a Shohei Ohtani or maybe Goku, but with Beijing only an hour behind Tokyo, it was easy for us to watch the Games in real time.

Internationally, a lot of social media spleen was vented at athletes for their perceived failures or faux pas or drug tests. But here in Tokyo, the chatter on and offline was about a

social media apology, posted to Instagram by Japanese ski jumper Sara Takanashi, whose barely oversized snowsuit got her team disqualified and cost Japan a chance to medal.

Takanashi’s remorse was greeted by an outpouring of support in Tokyo coupled with some serious reflections on Japan’s culture of apology. Saying sorry is often the first response to any situation in Japan, but some wondered if it is always appropriate or even sincere.

We were hit by rising Covid numbers until a little before Valentine’s Day, another of February’s handy distractions.

The holiday was embraced here during the 1950s, when clever marketers added a counterpart: White Day, March 14th. On the former, women give men chocolate; on the latter, men return the favor. Double the sales!

But sincerity dogged this day, too. The ritual of giri choco, obligatory chocolates female employees are expected to gift their male colleagues, has been in steep decline in recent years. Covid’s office closings may have killed it.

February also brings us umemi, plum-blossom viewing, a sign of spring more reliable than tossed soybeans, huge sushi rolls and good-luck chants. April’s hanami cherry-blossom frolics get the spotlight, but plum blossoms are bolder and more voluptuous, and the annual festival at Umegaoka's plum blossom hill in Setagaya is the surest sign that spring is shoving winter out the door.

Sadly, the end of this February has brought us an invasion and war in Eastern Europe, a horrific distraction nobody wants. Hurry up, March! Please march it all away.

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