In an agriculture society where people’s daily lives depend on the weather, people have worshipped the gods at festivals to pray for crop prosperity, to ward off evil and to bring good fortune. What was once a ceremony solely to worship gods, however, has transformed into a traditional folklore event in modern times. The culture of Namahage, frightening the people of Oga city in Akita Prefecture, is a perfect example.
What is Namahage
Namahage ( なまはげ ) is a folk event unique to the Oga Peninsula in Oga city, Akita Ken. The word derives from combining the Japanese word for erythema (namomi) caused by idling next to a fire for a long period in order to avoid the winter cold, and the word for tearing off (hagu) the reddish lumps that can build on the skin as a result. The demons looking gods who warn those slacking off from work and their studies became known as Namahage.
There are various theories as to the origin of these fearsome demons. one legend goes that a village was afflicted by the evil doings of five demons. To combat the problem, a deal was made: If the demons could build a thousand stone steps leading up to the Akagami Shrine Goshado in a single night, they would offer a girl in return but, if the demons failed, they had to leave the village forever. The five demons made it as far as the 999th step but, when they were about to set the last stone, the villagers interfered by imitated the morning crow of a rooster. Thinking it was a voice from heaven, the dissapointed demons ran away from the village, never to return.
Namahage Folk Ritual
Every year on December 31, New Year’s Eve, locals wrapped in knitted straw known as kede put on fearsome Namahage masks exclusive to their districts and walk around neighborhoods to visit homes. Warning children to work hard, to study and to listen to their parents, the Namahage shout things like, “Are there any crying children?” and “Are there any misbehaving children?”. This frightening act comes from the wish that the children will earn good grades in school, succeed in society and thus be happy in the years to come. Each homeowner entertains the Namahage with sake and sailfin sandfish (caught off the coast of Akita Prefecture) while praising his spouse and children in order to protect them from the frightful visitor. Also, on January 3, Saitou-sai(Festival) is held at Manshin Shrine, which boasts a history of about 900 years. In the vicinity of the shrine, a fire is lit and mochi (pounded rice cakes, also known as goma mochi) are roasted; they are offered to the Namahage, descended from the mountaintop as the gods’ messenger, and a prayer is said for the village’s peace and crop prosperity. Combining the New Year’s Eve Namahage event and Saitou-sai, locals have created Oga’s Winter Festival, also known as the Namahage Sedo Matsuri. Every year, the event is held on the second Friday, Saturday and Sunday of February, satisfying any tourist’s curiosity about Namahage culture. The highlight is when the Namahage ascends the mountain with torch in hand. The sight of the torch’s flame illuminating the dark road against the bright white snow creates a truly mystical scene!
Goshado: 30min bus ride from Oga Station (JR Oga Line) by bus
Shinzan Shrine: 50min from Hadachi Station (JR Oga Line) by bus
The Event’s True Meaning
Originally, participants in the Namahage folk ritual would visit most households. However, with the changing times, now there are some families who do not welcome a visit from the Namahage. Some parents cannot stand to see their children being scolded, and some say that it is a cruel ritual of disciplinary punishment against children. In this way, the tradition of this culture has been challenged repeatedly through the ages.
Noboru Sugawara, a local elder, used to visit households as a Namahage. In his opinion, shouting of the Namahage wards off evil and brings good fortune. People who are unaware of Namahage culture sometimes misunderstand the ritual as simply an act of chastising children, Sugawara says, and hence something threatening. This conveys the importance of understanding the true meaning behind Namahage culture instead of inheriting the tradition blindly, and its value should be handed down to future generations.
Cultural Revitalization through Mask Reproduction
Traditional Namahage culture is also under threat due to the disappearance of masks that are unique to each district, as well as the fact that the ritual is no longer held in certain regions. In 2014, Ashizawa District’s Youth Association gained attention for its efforts to reproduce its mask for the first time in 30 years. Yasuaki Takeda, a member of the Youth Association to produce masks, reveald that they used old photos in literature material, to confirmed the features of the mask, gather the necessary materials and collaborate in the production, a process that took over two years. They wanted to create an exact replica of the original mask, but soon realized the challenges that came with the color formulation and preparation of the material. This led the Association to have a change of heart regarding an exact replica, and they realized that by using current materials, the mask would truly reflect the current times.
Scott Camio, an American teacher at Funagawa Daiichi Elementary School in Oga, has participated in the New Year’s Eve ritual. As a non-Japanese, he said he was strongly moved by how local residents were struggling to preserve Namahage culture and their approach not only to pass it on to next generations, but also to improve it. In this way, the Namahage folk culture does not burn out in an instant like fireworks, but rather is deeply rooted in the lives of the local residents; they continue to explore how to find a balance between traditional culture and modern- day life in order for the true meaning of Namahage culture to be handed down to future generations.
Access:15min from Hadachi Station (JR Oga Line) by car