Well, we are in December and the countdown has finally begun to the most wonderful time of the year — and no I don’t mean the release of the latest Star Wars movie!
Christmas and New Year are a big deal in Japan these days. The Japanese have adopted traditionally western icons such as Santa Claus and Christmas trees into their culture. However, there are some festive traditions here that pre-date the western notions of “the holidays.”
One such tradition is the legendary Namahage: Akita Prefecture’s most famous festive visitor. However, this big guy with his angry red face and huge stone club is more Krampus than Claus.
He and his fellow oni (demons) visit the homes of children across the city every New Year’s Eve, warning children of the dangers of behaving badly or disobeying their parents. In local colloquial dialect they shout various phrases as they rumble down the street such as: “Are there any crybabies here?” and “Are there any naughty children in this house?”
In modern times, the Namahage tradition has actually become a useful tool for teaching morals to young children in the area. Those donning the namahage costumes will often liaise with parents ahead of time to see which specific warnings they need to give to the children in each house. “Listen to your parents” or “Keep your room clean” for example. For their hard work, our resident Oni demons are usually treated to mochi cakes from the houses they visit.
The demon has even become such a popular legend that it has its own museum and festival every February. But where did this all begin?
Once upon a time in Akita
The story of Namahage actually predates Santa Claus by centuries. While the exact origin of the legend may be lost to time, according to some noted scholars and local experts, the origins may actually predate Christianity itself. In and around Oga City, Akita Prefecture, where the ritual continues to this day, the locally accepted explanation of Namahage’s origin goes as follows:
At some time in the first century B.C., the Han Emperor Wu, ruler of most of China at that time, came to what is now known as the Tohoku region of Japan, bringing demons with him. Five of these oni set up home in the mountain peaks of Honzan and Shinzan, on the Oga Peninsula. From time to time, the oni would venture down into the village under cover of night and steal crops and sometimes even the local women.
In an effort to convince Namahage and his fellow oni to leave the citizens of Oga alone, the villagers challenged the oni to a simple wager.
If the oni could build a path of 1,000 steps from the Sea of Japan shoreline to the top of Mount Shinzan in a single night, then they would be rewarded with their pick of the women from the village every year. However, if they failed in this seemingly impossible task, they would have to agree to leave the women, the rest of the villagers and their crops in peace forever.
Considering this to be a pretty safe wager and confident in their own abilities, the oni accepted the bet. To the shock and horror of the villagers, the oni undertook their task with amazing speed and ferocity. With dawn an hour away, they were almost finished.
In desperation, one villager took up a concealed position near the demons and mimicked the morning cry of the rooster. Believing the cry to be that of a genuine rooster, the oni mistakenly believed that dawn was imminent. They stopped their work, conceded the wager to the citizens of Oga and retreated to the mountains never to return.
However, as a caveat, Namahage swore to return in the future, if he ever felt the humans were stepping out of line in their behavior. And so began the annual ritual of Namahage’s return to warn the children of Oga to mend their ways, lest they be carried away to the mountain peaks by he and his fellow demons.
The legend continues
Originally, an event was held not on New Year’s Eve, but instead on the night of the first full moon of the new year, which would typically falls sometime in mid-February, approximately two weeks after the Chinese Lunar New Year. This was most likely a residual effect of the Chinese origins of the legend itself. However, as Japan has modernized and adopted the Western calendar, so too has the legend of Namahage.
However, there remains in place another annual festival that still honors this original date on the calendar. The Namahage Sedo Festival takes place on the second weekend of February each year. The event, which takes place at Shinzan Shrine in Oga City, combines a procession and dance incorporating several Namahage with more conventional Shinto rituals.
Since the Namahage Sedo Festival’s modern inception in 1964, it has grown to be one of the most popular cultural events in the Tohoku region.
Since the Namahage Sedo Festival’s modern inception in 1964, it has grown to be one of the most popular cultural events in the Tohoku region. These days, in addition to New Year’s Eve activities in and around Oga City, Namahage enjoys a special place in the hearts not just of the people of Akita Prefecture but also all around Japan. He has also inspired other similar rituals such as the Kasedori of Yamagata Prefecture or the Amamehagi of Ishikawa Prefecture.
The popular setsubun (bean throwing festival) held in February all across Japan is also, to some extent, inspired by this legend. The purpose of throwing the beans was originally intended to bring good luck to the family, but also to dispel demons and other scary creatures, such as Namahage.
However, setsubun was not a widely adopted practice until much later during the Muromachi period, around 700 years after the time Emperor Wu allegedly introduced Namahage to Japan. Today, Namahage exists not as an agent of fear, but as an official cultural asset and a source of revenue via museums, performances, souvenirs, brand image — and in many ways an unofficial mascot for Akita Prefecture.
He may not be as cute as mascots like Kumamon, but in Akita at least, he’s got almost as much merchandise! Namahage even has his own museum, the “Namahage-Kan” on the Oga Peninsula, a short drive away from Namahage’s mythical home on Mount Shinzen.
So, if you want to experience a vastly different style of marking New Year’s Eve this year, then maybe you should visit Oga City. However, before you decide to go, consider one important point: Have you been good this year?
How do you plan to spend the winter holidays in Japan this year? Let us know in the comments below!