Originating in the northern city of Oga, Akita prefecture, namahage is a ghastly, ogre-like demon typically used to frighten lazy and badly behaved children into getting their act together. Beginning as a local tradition, the Namahage Festival is now considered one of the most fascinating spectacles to see in Japan. We take a look at the origins, history, and rituals of this bizarre and unique celebration.
The Legend of Namahage
Legend has it that namahage were brought to Japan by the Han emperor of China over 2,000 years ago. The demon-like ogres stole crops and kidnapped young women from the villages of Oga. To drive the namahage out of the area, the villagers hatched a plan; they promised to give up all the young women in the village at once if the ogres could build a massive stone staircase overnight, but if they failed, they would agree to leave Oga for good. The creatures agreed, and just before the staircase was a completed, one of the villagers imitated the sound of a rooster’s crow, tricking the namahage into believing that morning had come and they had failed to complete their task. The namahage left Oga, never to be seen again.
The Namahage ritual
While the namahage were supposedly driven out of the city a long time ago, they would eventually be portrayed by local men in costume in order to frighten misbehaving children. If that sounds bizarre, well, that’s because it is; carrying knives and donning straw capes and ogre masks, the villagers march around the town in groups of two or three, going door to door to people’s homes while shouting phrases like, “Are there any naughty kids around?” or “Are there any lazy daughters-in-law here?” After the children are sufficiently terrified, the head of the household will typically appease the “ogres” by giving them sake and rice cakes and sending them on their way.
The Oga Namahage Festival
The namahage ritual still takes place in Oga every New Year’s Eve, and visitors are welcomed to observe the traditional practice. If you are looking for a unique way to ring in the New Year that doesn’t involve getting drunk and watching a ball slowly drop in an overcrowded sports bar, consider making the trip up north to Oga. Additionally, the Namahage Sedo Festival (also held in Oga) is held for three days in early February and features bonfires, traditional storytelling, and dancing.