Each year on New Year’s Eve the Japanese village of Oga carries out an elaborate ritual involving demonic-like ogre figures, the Namahage.
Legends behind the Namahenge vary in Japan, but in Oga their story is well established and it is one everyone knows:
Nearly two millennia ago, Emperor Han brought five demons with him to the region. The demons stole crops and young women. The villagers devised a ploy to thwart the demons, telling them all crops and women would be freely given to them, if first they constructed a staircase of one thousand steps in a single night. The demons agree and set to work on the staircase however, a villager imitated the crow of a rooster, signaling the break of dawn just as the demons had laid down the 999th stair. Fearing daylight, the demons rapidly retreated back to their mountain home, leaving the task incomplete.
Although you can find various celebrations and rituals involving the Namahage throughout Japan, no one does it better than Oga. A grand festival occurs on New Year’s Eve each year involving elaborate, costumed dances, an enormous bonfire and Japanese drumming. There’s all-you-can-drink sake, too. The highlight of the festival though is the appearance of fifteen Namahage marching down from the mountain where they are said to live to descend upon the village. The demons hand out sticky rice cakes to the citizens of Oga, believed to ward off disaster in the coming year.
Later that day the Namahage are preceded by a sakidachi. The sakidachi visits every house in Oga to discern first if the household is in mourning or if anyone there is suffering from a serious illness. If so, this house is overlooked for the year. If not, the sakidachi inquires if any new children ave been born into the family and this is noted. Entry is then requested. At this time the head of household must welcome in the sakidachi and a throng of Namahage, who proceed to yell in terrifying voices and stomp around the house.
After they settle down the Namahnge are served food and sake and they begin to interview the head of household about the state of his harvest and senior family members. They then ask if the the younger inhabitants of the home are working and studying hard and providing adequate care for other members of the family. They state how very angry they will be if they learn someone in the house is lazy or disobedient. The HoH proceeds to reassure the Namahage and tries to change the subject, but they aren’t buying it, remarking on the laziness and rudeness of the wife and children of the house as they have not appeared to pay their respects to the Namahage. Things get crazy from here on out.
Since the demons can see everything that happens in each house from their mountain home they take notes in a special book throughout the year. The book is extracted at this time and the deeds of the family are more closely examined. No matter how good you were, in Japan, you can allays do better! The Namahenge are not at all pleased and declare your wife and kids lazy and rude. The wife’s terrible parenting skills are also discussed.
At this time the namahage have decided all ladies and children of the house are just too naughty and lazy to live and they have firmly decided to take all of them back to their demonic mountain lair. The Namahage proceed to get up and physically go after the women and children, terrifying them. There are often tears and screaming.
The HoH begs and pleads with the demons not to take his family and promises to discipline them all better during the communing year. He also plies them with more sake. The demons eventually calm down and declare their trust in the vows of the HoH and agree not to kidnap his now terrified family. However, they tell the HoH that at any point during the year, if the women and children do not comply, the Namahage can be summoned to the home by clapping their hands three times while facing their mountain. Just before the demons take their leave they warn the family of their return next New year’s Eve.
Happy New Year!
Artwork by Yuko Shimizu
Photograph via Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum
The Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum
Namahage – Important Intangible Cultural Asset