Screaming oni yielding long knives, coming from the pitch-black forest. Crying children getting snatched from the arms of their parents. Does it sound like the opening of a horror movie? It is not – These oni, called “Namahage” play an essential role in strengthening the local communities. They also help educate children about the importance of being diligent in school and to listen to their parents.
Educating children and strengthening the local communities
Namahage is the name of a oni, said to be living in the forest-clad mountains on the Oga peninsula, on the Japan Sea coast in the north-west Akita. On new year’s eve every year the Namahage festival takes place in villages all over the peninsula.
During the festival, local young men dress up as Namahage oni, wearing straw garments and frightening masks. They make rounds to all the households in the village where there are young children. Once they arrive at a new house, they yell frighteningly and ask questions like “are there any lazy kids in this house?” or “Have you been good and listened to your parents this year?”.
At the Namahage Museum in Oga, Senshu Ishikawa, the only craftsman of Namahage masks told me that “being scary is necessary for Namahage mask.”
Traditionally when the Namahage arrives, the parents try to convince the Namahage that their children have been behaving well. Still, the ritual often involves a bit of a tug-of-war between the oni and their parents, with the child in between. It’s not unusual that they start crying and screaming before the Namahage finally gives up. Afterwards, the entire family gathers around the table and sake is served to the Namahage, before they move on to the next house.
Masks in ritual are mostly made by the members of the region
At the Museum, we get a first-hand look at some of these frightening oni up close. Over 150 variants of the Namahage are on display in a big room, 26 of which are still in use on the night of new year’s eve. In each of around 90 areas in Oga, local people carry out the Namahage ritual with masks, mostly made by themselves and unique to their region.
The tradition of Namahage has a history that dates back hundreds of years. The oldest physical evidence of the ritual is wooden masks dating back over 150 years. But it is believed that the ritual dates back considerably longer than that. Some ethnologists say that it could date back as far as 2,000 years. Among some different legends regarding the origin of Namahege, there is one thing in common – the oni always come from the mountains, implying that it was originally believed to be an avatar of mountain gods. People in Oga have strong ties to the mountains in the region, which provides them with foods to survive.