The Namahage (生剥) are demonlike beings portrayed by men wearing hefty oni (ogre) masks and traditional straw capes (mino) during a New Year's ritual, in local northern Japanese folklore of the Oga Peninsula area of Akita Prefecture.
The frightfully dressed men impersonating the oni-demons wearing masks, dressed in long straw coats or mino, locally called kede or kende. They are armed with deba knives (albeit wooden fakes or made of papier-mâché) and toting a teoke (手桶, "hand pail" made of wood), march in pairs or threes going door-to-door making rounds of people's homes, admonishing children who may be guilty of laziness or bad behavior, yelling phrases like "Are there any crybabies around?" (泣く子はいねがぁ, Nakuko wa inee gā?) or "Are naughty kids around?" (悪い子はいねえか, Waruiko wa inee ka?) in the pronunciation and accent of the local dialect.
Traditionally, the namahage have worn painted wooden masks, sometimes made of wood bark, and primarily painted red. But in recent years they have been manufactured using bamboo strainers as frames, cardboard material, or flattened metal canisters, etc., and the namahage may travel in pairs, one red-faced, the other blue-faced, in the hamlet of Yumoto (incorporated into the city of Oga), for example.
The straw attire are often described as a mino (standard Japanese),[a] but these are considered particular items of clothing known locally as kede (or ke nde; kedashi).
The namahage's purpose was to admonish laggards who sit around the fire idly doing nothing useful. One of the refrains used by the namahage in the olden days was "Blisters peeled yet?" (なもみコ剝げたかよ, namomi ko hagetaka yo). Namomi signifies heat blisters, or more precisely hidako (火だこ, hidako)[b] (Erythema ab igne or EAI),[c] which in Japanese is dairisekiyō hihan (大理石様皮斑), but hidako is glossed as onnetsusei kōhan (温熱性紅斑) in medical literature, which corresponds to Erythema ab igne. Folklorist literature such as Ine mention hidako, but not the precise medical term for it. A rashlike condition caused by overexposure to fire, from sitting by the dugout irori hearth. Thus "fire rash peeling" is generally believed to be the derivation of the name namahage.
Although the namahage are nowadays conceived of as a type of oni or ogre, it was originally a custom where youngsters impersonated the kami who made visitations during the New Year's season. Thus it is a kind of toshigami.
The practice has shifted over the years.
According to 20th century descriptions, the namahage would typically receive mochi (rice cakes) from the households they visited, but newlywed couples were supposed to play host to them in full formal attire and offer them sake and food. The namahage still receive hospitality in likewise manner during the New Years, but in a reversal of roles, the namahage distribute mochi to visitors (tourists) during the Namahage sedo matsuri (なまはげ柴灯まつり, Namahage Sedo Festival) held in February.
This is a New Year's ritual, and the namahage visits nowadays take place on New Year's Eve (using the Western calendar). But it used to be practiced on the so-called "Little New Year" (小正月, Koshōgatsu), the first full moon night of the year. This is the 15th day of the first lunar calendrical year, which is not the same thing as January 15; it usually falls around mid-February, exactly two weeks after the Chinese New Year (Japanese: Kyūshogatsu).
The aforementioned Namahage Sedo Festival, which was not established until 1964, is held annually on the second weekend of February (roughly coinciding with the "Little New Year"), at the Shinzan Shrine.[d]
Some of the namahage's other spoken lines of old were "Knife whetted yet?" (包丁コとげたかよ, hōchōko togetaka yo) and "Boiled adzuki beans done yet?" (小豆コ煮えたかよ, azuki ko nietaka yo). The knife apparently signified the instrument to peel the blisters, and it was customary to have azuki gruel on the "Little New Year".
The legend of the Namahage varies according to an area. An Akita legend has developed regarding the origins of namahage, that Emperor Wu of Han (d. 87 BC) from China came to Japan bringing five demonic oni to the Oga area, and the oni established quarters in the two local high peaks, Honzan (本山) and Shinzan (真山). These oni stole crops and young women from Oga's villages.
The citizens of Oga wagered the demons that if they could build a flight of stone steps, one thousand steps in all, from the village to the five shrine halls (variant: from the sea shore to the top of Mt. Shinzan) all in one night, then the villagers will supply them with a young woman every year. But if they failed the task they would have to leave. Just as the ogres were about to complete the work, a villager mimicked the cry of a rooster, and the ogres departed, believing they had failed.
An obvious purpose of the festival is to encourage young children to obey their parents and to behave. Parents know who the Namahage actors are each year and might request them to teach specific lessons to their children during their visit. The Namahage repeat the lessons to the children before leaving the house.
Some ethnologists and folklorists suggest it relates to a belief in deities (or spirits) coming from abroad to take away misfortune and bring blessings for the new year, while others believe it to be an agricultural custom where the kami from the sacred mountains visit.
The tradition where the ogres are called namahage occurs in the Oga Peninsula area of Akita Prefecture.
Although the namahage of Oga has become the foremost recognized, cognate traditions occur in other regions throughout Japan, viz.: