The Japanese Namahage in Japan
A lot of Japanese kids will start trembling if they hear the question “Are there any cry babies here?” during the New Year’s Eve. This is due to the folklore that a Japanese demon will be taking away children who do not listen to their parents, who are lazy, and who are cry babies. Any child who is caught misbehaving the previous year shall be taken away.
This concept is pretty similar to the Western concept of Santa Claus. Here is a cute, chubby man dressed in red and sports a long white mustache who is set to punish misbehaving children by not giving them gifts for Christmas. On the other hand, the friendly looking grandpa is replaced by a scary monster-like creature carrying knives instead of gifts. Also, instead of happening during the Christmas time, the namahage celebrations happen during the New Years.
During this time, there are people dressed in namahage costumes roaming the streets to remind everyone that New Year is right around the corner so they better be on their best behavior. This festival is most commonly seen and experienced in the Akita Prefecture of Northern Japan.
The thing about this is that the story is 100 per cent original, and any similarity to a western character is just mere coincidence. There are a much deeper history and the story behind the costumes and traditions of the Namahage.
Nonetheless, the conceptualization of the namahage is based on its ferocity and terrifying looks. The namahage’s role is to steal crops, take away children, and bring fear to the neighborhood. However, it is also a story of the good beating the bad. It would seem that the namahage demon will not take away any children who are known to behave well, as long as their parents give out offerings to these beings.
The Japanese Namahage in Folklore
There is no specific written document that could date back the folklore of the namahage to when it was created or to what it was based on. There are a number of stories that could explain where the idea of the namahage came from. However, all of these still remain unverified.
There is evidence that point to it being a bed time story told to young children so they will learn how to listen to their parents and be on their best behavior at all times. This is made up by the monster-like main character out to get any misbehaving child.
There is evidence as well that it was based on a Chinese folk tale entitled “The 999 Stone Steps” where a Chinese Emperor sent ogres to steal crops and young girls from villages. These ogres originated from the mountains of Honzan and Shinzan – the two highest areas of the mountain in the story. In this story, the villagers have made a deal with the ogres that they are never again to steal young girls from the villages if they could build a 1,000-step staircase up to the mountains in one night. However, when they are putting the 1,000th step a village crowed pretending to be a rooster fooling the ogres into thinking that they have lost the bet.
There are also stories that claim that these “namahage” are the weirdly clothed, “ugly-faced” foreigners who reach the shores of Akita. These are probably traders or slaves of traders. Since the world of the Japanese locals at the time was quite small, they are unfamiliar with persons of other races. Seeing these people make them think that they are actually demons instead of humans.
The Typical Namahage Costume
A typical namahage has a face similar to a Japanese ogre or Oni. They have red skin with a pig like ears sticking out at the top of their heads. Their eyes are full of anger and they have sharp fangs shown through this growl they have on their faces. A namahage costume is equipped as well with a straw hat or a straw cape is known as a mino. They are also often portrayed to either carry traditional drums or knives. Since it is just a costume, these hand-carried knives are actually wooden fakes or are made from papier-mache.
What is also interesting is that the namahage can be either a man or a woman. Male namahage or male ogres are represented by red-skinned masks while female namahage are represented by blue-skinned masks. This is quite interesting since many supernatural characters in Japanese folklore are genderless.
There is a wide variety of namahage costumes depending on where it is seen. There are parades and street performances with elaborate hair pieces and costumes that go beyond the typical straw cape. There are some that march together in groups and it is clear in their masks that the namahage can have a number of terrifying faces. Some namahage have bare feet while others have woolen shoes – it does not actually matter.
What makes them even more unique compared to the other demons is that they walk and stride like monkey monsters. They almost crawl like fierce beasts out to look for their prey. On top of that, they are often heard saying “Are there any cry babies around?” or “Are there naughty kids around?”.
The Oga Namahage Festival
Originally, the Oga Namahage Festival is celebrated during the first full moon night of the year. This was when it was still based on the lunar calendar, a day known as the “Little New Year”. This usually happens around two weeks after the Chinese New Year. The introduction of the western calendar to the Japanese have changed the celebration date to New Year’s Eve which happens on the 31st of December every year.
During this time, men dressed in Namahage costumes will be dropping by the door to door (or house to house) to ask for misbehaving children. However, during the earlier times, the dialogue varied. Since the namahage is after people, not just children who are lazy, they usually ask around with the question “Blistered peeled yet?”. This is pertaining to blisters caused by overexposure to heat when sitting on a hearth. This means that the overexposure is caused by too much laziness and the lack of movement from one’s position. The knife that the namahage carries is a symbol for a tool to peel out blisters from lazy persons.
Through the centuries, the traditions surrounding the Namahage festival has changed significantly. It has turned from a normal, magical folklore into a children’s story books. It has also been quite commercialized to the point that there are now “cute namahage” characters in many New Year products being sold in Japan. It has turned the idea of the namahage from a terrifying creature into something that will lessen the fear in children.
Also, the role of the Namahage has also varied quite significantly through the years. Nowadays, the namahage is to receive mochi from houses that they visit. For newlyweds, it has become a tradition for them to welcome the namahage in their formal clothing while offering them sake and food. This is believed to bring them good luck and push away evil spirits.
The Namahage Museum in Oga, Akita
Believe it or not, the Namahage museum in Akita consists of a total of two large buildings. The first building was built to show the visitors and curious on-lookers about the history of the namahage. This building explains the role that the namahage has played in the Japanese culture through the centuries.
There are exhibitions about the clothing of the namahage, what each costume piece represents in its legends. There are also exhibitions of the demon tools owned by the namahage which is believed to bring about torture to any individual they have captured.
There had been a study as well of the historical records as to when the idea of the namahage first came about. This building purely gives educational information about the namahage of the Akita prefecture through demonstrations, photos, documentaries, and exhibits. On top of that, there are much more touristy activities that can be done in the first building. There are life-size models displayed all over the place where visitors can take their photos. There is even an area inside the building where visitors can wear namahage costumes.
The second building is the Shinzan Folklore museum which tells stories not only about the namahage but all the different demons, kami, and other Shinto deities which are believed to exist in Japan. There are performances that show what these characters are and how they are portrayed in Japanese history, art, and culture.
The Importance of the Namahage in Japanese Culture
Although the concept of the Namahage, in reality, can be pretty terrifying for young children, its traditions are still highly encouraged in the Japanese culture. This is due to the fact that the underlying effect of believing in the namahage teaches young children to be respectful to their parents. It also teaches them something about showing toughness versus actually being tough.
For the Japanese, proper behavior and etiquette are held in high regard. Respect is an important pillar in their society and teaching children about respect, hard work, and obedience can come a long way. Although the idea of a supernatural being going to one’s house to take away bad children is absolutely terrifying, Japanese children understand that if they follow their parents they would be safe. On top of that their fathers can protect them by resolving the issue through treating the namahage well, through giving them cakes and sake.
What many don’t understand is that the namahage is not actually a demon. Instead, he is a kami, or a supernatural deity, set out to protect the people from evil spirits. They are similar to the typical oni or ogre in Japanese. It is suggested that these Shinto deities will surely push away any form of bad luck or misfortune to prepare for the coming year.
The Importance of the New Year for the Japanese
There are three New Year celebrations in Japan. The first is the Gregorian calendar New Year held 1st of January of every year. The second is the Lunar New Year which is highly dependent on the lunar calendar. And the last is the Little New Year which is held on the first full moon of the year. Regardless of the time and date, the New Year celebrations are held, each of this has a similar role to play.
The New Year celebrations for the Japanese is important because it signifies renewal. A new year, a new life and a new chance for a healthier and wealthier being. This is the time of the year when they throw away all the bad aspects of their life to welcome new things. These may include good fortune, good health, and even luck.
For the Japanese, there are different ways of welcoming the New Year and it often involves the presence of supernatural deities. One way to celebrate the New Year, other than the namahage, is through the Setsubun, or bean-throwing festival. Both festivals are believed to push away misfortune to bring way to good luck.
Other Demons in Japanese Folklore
Oni - It is actually quite difficult to distinguish the Oni from the Namahage. This is due to the fact that the oni, is also part humanoid part supernatural. They have ogre-like features, sharp claws, and horns growing out of their heads. They also have red skin making Oni masks and Namahage masks similar. This is because of the fact that the namahage is a kind of oni or Japanese ogre.
Yokai - A yokai is a demon or a supernatural being. Unlike the gentle giants are known as the oni, the yokai are known to be mischievous and malevolent. However, they are known to bring good fortune as well. The difference among a yokai, and oni, and a namahage is the fact that a yokai has the ability to shape shift. This means that they have the ability to change their appearance from being a fox to a human to a ghostlike figure, and more.