Namahage (生剥) is a Japanese ritual currently practiced on New Year's Day in the Oga Peninsula near Akita, a prefecture in the Tōhoku region, located in the northern part of Japan's main island, Honshu.
Its most famous aspect is the visit of young men disguised as demons - the oni - among the inhabitants. After threatening to take away disobedient or lazy children, causing terror to the youngest, they leave appeased by the parents' denials and offerings of food.
Their visit, linked to the legend of the toshigami, or visit of the gods for the new year, is considered as a source of blessing.
The name namahage is said to come from an expression in the Akita dialect "namomi hagi" ("raw skin") formed from the word "nama" ("raw") and the verb "hagi" ("to peel").
It refers to the blisters caused by the splashing of embers from kotatsu, braziers placed under the table and used for heating in winter. Tearing the skin off these blisters exposes the flesh.
The presence of many blisters and their removal is said to be a symbol of laziness, since it mainly affects those who spend their time sitting idly around the kotatsu. However, at the same time, the imperative expression "namomihage" became a greeting for wives, children and visitors in the New Year.
The demons of namahage, the oni, are generally considered to be a derivation of the auspicious gods of the New Year.
Originally celebrated on the 15th day of the New Year, the namahage festival is now held on the night of December 31.
On New Year's Eve, a group of young men dressed as demons called namahage (a kind of bogeyman or Krampus), visit every house in the village, shouting, "Is there a child misbehaving here", "Are there children disobeying their parents" or "Are there daughters-in-law neglecting their duties?"
They will then scare the children, telling them not to be lazy or not to cry. The parents then assure the namahage that there are no bad children in their house and give food or traditional alcoholic drinks to the demons.
The young men who played the namahage were traditionally young, single men in their late teens, known to the visitors as being of good character and belonging to the local elite. Over time, the selection criteria have become less stringent. They are accompanied by older men who channel them and serve as guides, as well as by teenagers who collect a few coins at the end of their visit.
The costumes were initially made of all sorts of primary materials, such as dried seaweed, straw, bark...
The oni can be male or female. They are differentiated by the color of their mask: red for the former, blue for the latter.
The namahage ritual has been the subject of abundant research and observation, arousing growing interest on the part of foreigners to the peninsula to whom it was inaccessible. The ritual, whose primary function was magical or religious, gave rise to derivative events whose main function became that of a performance, intended for an audience of "visitors.
According to Foster, it is likely that the creation of these derivative events was a way of safeguarding the existence of the original ritual, preserving it from tourist pressure, but also revitalizing it by reminding the inhabitants of the Oga Peninsula of its significance and emphasizing its private character.
This festival (matsuri) was established in 1964 and is held on the second Friday, Saturday and Sunday of February. It combines elements of the namahage ritual, and that of a shintō celebration traditionally held on January 3 in the Shinzan temple in Kitaura, under the city of Oga.
After a series of Shintō blessings and the performance of a sacred dance, young people with faces wearing masks consecrated by a priest are presented to the public in front of a large bonfire.
Then they ascend the mountain where a ceremony known as taking the namahage (nyukon) spirits is held. Then, a show takes place on a stage located in the temple of Kakura-den. The namahage perform the New Year ritual, present a series of the various masks and costumes existing in the peninsula, and perform a taiko, large Japanese drums.
The show includes other more contemporary elements, with for example in 2013 a modern dance performance created by Baku Ishii, with music by his son, composer Kan Ishii.
After a torchlight descent of the mountain, young people embodying the namahage walk through the crowd around Shinzan Temple, concluding the festival.
The namahage festival is listed in the cultural heritage of Japan as an important property of living ethnological heritage (重要無形民俗文化財, jūyō mukei minzoku bunkazai).
The namahage characters have given rise to many forms of commercial exploitation: as symbols for the attention of tourists, but also as subjects of themed restaurants, or as constituents of brands of beer, noodles, and other everyday products.
There are many similar traditions (toshigami) both in the Tōhoku region and in other regions:In Tōhoku, festivals called Suneka, Namomi, or Namomitakuri are held in northern Iwate Prefecture, east of Akita Prefecture. With the exception of the name, which has the same etymology, and of some details in the course of the ritual and of the costumes and masks, the framework is very close to namahage ;