Festivals of Japan: Oga no Namahage Festival
By John Asano
The Oga no Namahage Festival is a winter festival held on New Year’s Eve around Oga City in Akita Prefecture. The festival is an ancient folk tradition where young men dress as namahage (a type of demon/ogre) and visit the homes of local children to warn them not to be lazy or bad in the coming New Year.
The origins of the demons are shrouded by history. Some say they were originally ship-wrecked sailors. Others say they are demons introduced by a Chinese Emperor 2,000 years ago. Whatever they are they are now a local institution and a tradition has been passed down from generation to generation since ancient times in Japan.
Similar traditions and rituals can be found throughout Japan but the most famous is on the Oga Peninsula located in northern Honshu, Japan. To the local people, the namahage are visiting gods that come to warn against laziness, and bring protection from illness and disasters, as well as help provide a good harvest and plentiful food from the mountains and sea. The namahage are welcomed into each house as guests with offerings of mochi and sake.Photo by lin Judy
On New Year’s Eve, small groups of around 2 or 3 young village men disguise themselves as the grotesquely looking demons. The costumes include large demon masks, straw raincoats called mino and waist-bands. The namahage holding wooden knives and sacred wands go around at night visiting homes of local children in Oga City, shouting out menacing cries to scare the children and threats to carry off bad kids. The wooden wands hung with paper streamers called gohei, symbolize their status as Shinto gods. The purpose of the namahage is to scare the living daylights out of the young children in hope that they will behave in the New Year, or face the consequences.
The namahage travel with a “naughty and nice” book, kind of like Santa Claus and use the information about the inhabitants of each house to admonish the children. Parents can inform the namahage in advance with details about their children and how they want them to behave better. These can include such things as to study harder, help around the house or to always remember to wash behind their ears.
It is a strange custom that encourages young children to obey their parents and to behave, which are important qualities in Japan’s heavily structured society.
Location: Oga City, Akita Prefecture
When: December 31
Time: New Year’s Eve
From Tokyo take the Akita Shinkansen to JR Akita Station. JR Oga Station is about 1 hour from JR Akita Station on the JR Oga Line.