On the final day of every year, red-faced demons storm the streets of Oga, yelling and stomping as they go. Kicking down front doors, they burst into homes in search of idle children.
For residents of this northern Japanese town, their Namahage tradition is as important to their history as it is to their contemporary lives. The practice stretches back centuries, and while it may initially appear to be merely a scarier version of Santa Claus, the ritual is much more about community and ancestry, a childhood rite of passage shared for centuries.
Here’s how it works: As the year draws to a close, young men from Oga prepare their woven rice straw costumes and ferocious, red-painted masks. In the past, the acting Namahage were chosen from unmarried men who then had to perform a cleansing ritual, but today, the tradition is much more inclusive.
On Dec. 31, men dressed as Namahage stomp through the city, yelping and shouting, “Are there any lazy children?” or “Are there any crybabies?”
One by one, they storm through the front doors of each home, where they stamp their feet seven times before roaring and searching for lazy children. They’ll yell in children’s faces and even pick them up, feigning an abduction. As the children scream and cry, the head of the household approaches the Namahage and calms them, offering them sake and a meal.
After the head of household thanks the Namahage for that year’s harvest, the men drink together. The demons (oni, 鬼) promise a good harvest for the following year before turning their attention back to the children, asking them if they’ll study and work hard in the following year. They promise they will, and the Namahage stomp their feet once more and leave. According to the tradition, the oni return to the mountains, where they live.
Namahage statues and cartoons are sprinkled throughout Oga and, more broadly, throughout Akita Prefecture, so it is clear to even the most casual of passers-through that the Namahage are a rich part of the region’s history. Despite this, there are conflicting stories about how the tradition arose.
One legend says the oni served the former Chinese Emperor Han Wu Ti. Another says they’re a group of foreigners taken ashore in a shipwreck. Some say the Namahage are deities of mountains surrounding Oga.
Whatever the origin, the story is the same: The Namahage terrorized the village of Oga, stealing their crops and women, until one day, the villagers struck a deal with their tormentors.
“Build a stone staircase with 1,000 stairs in just one night,” the villagers said, “and we’ll give you our women. But if you fail, leave us alone!”
The Namahage agreed, and just before daybreak, they had built 999 steps. Knowing they would soon lose, a villager imitated the sound of a rooster crowing, and the Namahage, thinking they’d met defeat, fled to the mountains. Today, the oni visit only on New Year’s Eve, promising good harvests and inspiring good behavior in children.
In addition to its annual festival, the Namahage tradition is kept alive at the Namahage Museum and Oga Shinzan Folk Museum. There, visitors can learn more about the year-end tradition and witness a live enactment of the namahage’s annual visits and a video showing children throughout the years as they scream in the face of the oni. The museum also features local folk artifacts, including a large boat carved from the trunk of a tree.
Historians speculate that namahage grew as a ritual to keep the village of Oga unified as it lived and farmed in the harsh climate of northern Japan. Today, the ritual remains alive not just because it anchors Oga to its past: Today, the children promising namahage they will study hard will one day interrogate the next generation, as will the next generation, keeping Oga simultaneously rooted in tradition and looking toward the future.
This activity was found on Nippon Quest, a website that curates unique, off-beat Japanese experiences around the country and allows foreigners and locals alike to rate them. To learn more about activities like this in Japan, visit their website.