Namahage: In Japan’s Akita, Demons Ring in the New Year

Namahage: In Japan’s Akita, Demons Ring in the New Year

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Namahage - New Years demons
Picture: mitsuki / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
The namahage are wild, Krampus-like New Year's mountain gods of Akita Prefecture. But what's the story behind the horns and straw coats?

Happy New Year! For New Year’s 2022, we explored New Year’s Traditions in Sendai, and the unique decoration that is the Sendai-style kadomatsu. This year, we go to the other side of the Ōu Mountains and explore the Namahage, one of the symbols of New Year in Akita Prefecture.

While namahage are fierce, oni-like creatures, their aim is ultimately positive. The namahage ritual doesn’t just bring a community together. It brings the world to snowy, coastal Akita.

New Year’s Visitors

Namahage mannequins on display at the Namahage Museum.
Namahage mannequins on display at the Namahage Museum. (source, CC3.0)

Namahage visually resemble oni but are not identical to them. They wear straw coats and boots, as befitting ancient visitors who arrived in the snow, and often carry knives and other implements.

Rather than oni, namahage might be better described as fierce mountain deities – frost giants of a sort. There are many such beings in folklore around the world. During my own lecture on namahage at Anthrocon 2022, I drew a parallel between them and the Krampus, a creature from central and Eastern European folklore.

Originally, the namahage were specific to the area that’s now Oga City. Now, they’re a symbol of Akita Prefecture and one of the symbols of the Tohoku region. However, historically there were many festivals of this sort across Japan.

Yamamoto Yoshiko, an ethnographer who wrote about the namahage following fieldwork in the 1970s, included analysis of similar observances in Japan and the Ryukyu Islands. Most of them by that point had died out but were still just within living memory. From the Chasengo of Miyagi Prefecture to the Kapakapa of Aomori Prefecture to the Akamata-Kuromata of the Yaeyama Islands, Yamamoto’s study briefly describes ten such festivals in total. All were new year’s festivals that involved the visit of strange, otherworldly beings as a way of ushering in good fortune. But of them all, only the Namahage survive today, and that after nearly disappearing itself during and immediately after the Second World War.

Behind the Scenes

Behind the scenes, the namahage were historically played by the young men of the villages in what’s now Oga, in what was a rite of passage and a way of blowing off steam in a cold, dark time of year where before electricity there was not much to do outside.

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It was also an opportunity to level the usual hierarchies of these communities. It allowed young men to say things they didn’t otherwise dare say to people who were usually their elders or seniors.

But ultimately the entire ritual was, and is, a way of bringing the community together, ringing in the new year, and renewing the community’s bonds with itself. As the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum’s homepage notes:

“In Oga, Namahage are believed to chase away bad luck and evil spirits with their loud voices and noisy actions. Their visits also cause the villagers to reflect on the passing year. As it always has been in Oga, after the Namahage have left, it is time to welcome the new year.”

The Thousand Steps

Namahage Matsuri
Picture: Fast&Slow / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

While the earliest written record about the namahage dates to 1804, the legend claims to be far older.

People don’t agree on where the namahage first came from. One take has it that Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty brought them to the Oga Peninsula. The emperor brought five of them and had them work without interruption to the point that they despaired.

Finally, the emperor gave them one day off, around the old lunar New Year. On that day, they descended from Mount Shin (Shinzan) into the community crying “Wa-aw” and demanding sake. While the villagers served them sake, the namahage threatened the villagers whose legs were blistered from sitting close to their home fires, rather than being out and working.

Goshadō
The Goshadō today. (source, CC 4.0)

And so the villagers issued a challenge. If the namahage could build a thousand steps to the Goshadō shrine, and do it overnight, then the villagers would give them a girl from among their population every year. If not, the namahage would have to leave the community alone.

The namahage worked all night and managed to lay 999 steps. But before they could build the thousandth step, a villager did an incredibly believable impression of a rooster crowing. Believing it was indeed dawn, the namahage uprooted a cryptomeria tree in their anger, flinging it to the Goshadō shrine grounds where it landed roots-up. Save for one night at New Year, the namahage went into the mountains and left the community alone.

Today, the Goshadō is on the grounds of Akagami Shrine. The tree remains. So do the shrine’s 999 very rough-hewn stone steps.

Akagami shrine stone steps
The stone steps said to have been laid by the namahage at Akagami Shrine. (source, CC4.0)

A Typical Namahage Visit

A typical namahage visit, per the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum, goes as follows.

An assistant called a sakidachi (vanguard 先立ち) goes ahead of the namahage into a local home to ask if the family has had a grave illness, if it’s mourning for anyone who’s passed, or if there’s been a birth in the past year. If the head of the household replies no to all of these questions, they are asked if the namahage may enter. With the householder’s permission, then, the wild mountain gods make their boisterous entrance.

Namahage are, as in their legends, played as loud and frightening. They especially make a point of frightening young children as well as people who have newly married into the community.

The namahage threaten that they will take away anyone who has been neglectful in doing their duties over the past year. The head of the household, in turn, plies the namahage with sake and snacks, and reassures the rowdy guests that the family will work hard and be dutiful in the coming year.

Eventually, satisfied and tipsy, the namahage make some more parting threats and take their leave. In this way, they work their way through the community, getting rowdier and a little drunker with each house.

The visit isn’t just an excuse for unmannerly behavior. As noted above, it’s also a chance for the people playing the namahage, who at least historically had been the community’s young working men, to be in a position where they did not have to answer to their elders and seniors. They could turn the tables on them.

In this way, the namahage bring laughter and life to a community in the grip of darkness and cold. It also reaffirms its bonds with itself at the start of each new year.

Namahage: Built Akita Tough

As Yamamoto Yoshiko observes in her study Namahage, part of why the Namahage survives as a tradition is its ability to adapt and change over time. Originally observed around the lunar new year, it was later moved to the western New Year roughly a month earlier. 

Another way it has changed is that the Japanese government designated it an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property. This designation gave it the attention and coverage that ensured its continued existence.

Namahage are ubiquitous in Akita. You see them frrom statues to namahage-shaped snacks to namahage marketing Starbucks.

“Latte for Rokube’e the Farmer?” (source, CC4.0)

Finally, another major change is that there are now two Namahage festivals in Oga. The second, held in February, is the Namahage Sedo Matsuri. Yamamoto, writing in the 1970s, notes that the local municipal government in cooperation with the tourism bureau instituted the February observance as a tourist draw in a time of year when agriculture was usually at a lull.

As a result, it’s for outsiders in more ways than one.

Now in its 60th year, this festival is held at Oga’s Shinzan-jinja, one of the area’s major shrines. Also on the grounds is the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum and the Oga Namahage Museum. These display and interpret historic namahage costumes and other relevant materials.

The site overall has indeed become a major local tourist draw. While the museum is free, entry to the Sedo Festival is 1000 yen. The festival now also requires reservations due to COVID-19 safety precautions. Even the pandemic hasn’t stopped the namahage spirit of Oga City and Akita Prefecture.

Conclusion

The nature of the Namahage’s yearly visit to Akita has changed over the centuries. It is that flexibility that will further ensure its survival. As Yamamoto notes in the conclusion to her study:

So long as the event remains flexible and spontaneous and the hamlet environment is not lost, the future of the festival is secure, for these features allow it to adapt– as it has in the past and is doing now– to its contemporary scene.”

While it was once a strongly local custom, it is now one of the symbols not just of one part of Akita but of the prefecture as a whole, one that continues to be vital and changing. And the message that the namahage bring – exhorting the community to diligence and service, and reaffirming its interconnectivity – is one that can resonate all year round.

Sources

  • Akagami jinja.” Yaokami.jp, accessed 29 December 2022.
  • Akagami jinja Goshadō.” Oganavi. Accessed 29 December 2022.
  • Bakkalian, Nyri A. “Tohoku Krampus,” presented at Anthrocon 2022. Archived at Sched.com. Accessed 29 December 2022.
  • Namahage Sedo Festival.” Oganavi homepage. Accessed 29 December 2022.
  • Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum.” Namahage Museum homepage. Accessed 29 December 2022.
  • Shinzan Jinja.” Yaokami.jp, accessed 29 December 2022.
  • Yamamoto Yoshiko. The Namahage: A Festival in the Northeast of Japan. (Philadelphia: ISHI, 1978), pp. 101-141.

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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020) and "Confluence: A Person-Shaped Story" (Balance of Seven Press, 2022). She hosts Friday Night History on anchor.fm/fridaynighthistory and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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