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What is Namahage?

Arriving in Japan more than 2,000 years ago, the namahage were notorious for stealing crops and kidnapping young women from Oga’s villages. After the villagers eventually fended them off by tricking them, they would come back every New Year, or so the children thought.

In Japan’s Akita prefecture, men dress up as large, ogre-resembling demons to terrify children into behaving better. Primarily targeting lazy children and newlywed couples, the namahage would go door-to-door, interrogating families before scaring their targets. 

The Child-Terrorizing Namahage

Numerous countries have some form of monster that had the purpose of scaring children into behaving well. In European mythology, we have the Krampus, who punishes naughty children and proves to be the exact opposite of Santa Claus. In Brazil, the crocodile monster Cuca targets children who do not sleep on time. From Algerian folklore, the chimeric creature H’awouahoua even wears the skin of disobedient children. Many more exist, but as of now, we’re focusing on the Japanese namahage. (Source: Playground Equipment

The namahage originates from Japan, specifically in the Akita prefecture. Commonly taking the form of a frightful, ogre-resembling demon, the namahage typically victimizes ill-mannered and lazy children. The tale of namahage began as a local tradition; currently, the Namahage Festival is considered one of the most enchanting scenes to see in Japan.

Legend states that more than 2,000 years ago, the Han emperor of China bought the namahage to Japan. The demons often kidnapped young women and stole harvests from Oga’s villages. Frequently victimized by the namahage‘s ill-mannered pursuits, the villagers devised a plan to trick the ogre-like demons into leaving.

The villagers soon made a deal with the namahage creatures, stating that they would give all the young women living in their village if the demons could erect a gigantic stone case overnight. If the namahage failed to comply, they would leave Oga.

Without a grain of hesitation, the demons agreed, and just before they would complete the stone case, one of the villagers mimicked a rooster’s crow, fooling the demons into believing that morning had struck. The namahage departed from Oga, returning once every year when celebrating the New Year, or so the children thought. (Source: Culture Trip

What Happens at the Namahage Festival?

In Oga’s Namahage festival every New Year, local men would portray the ogrelike demons in costume to terrify children, wearing traditional straw hats and capes while donning an oni mask and carrying huge knives. The namahage then walks around the town in groups of two to three people, visiting people’s homes to question the families whether there were naughty kids or lazy daughters-in-law.

Although the namahage ritual mainly focuses on scaring children to behave, adults are no exemption. Newlywed couples are also subject to the namahage‘s interrogation, as the demons expect them to reveal any ‘evil deeds’ they’ve done in their first year as a married couple.

The namahage also carries a ‘naughty or nice’ book, where the demons note down the parents’ suggestions on how they want their children to behave. After the onis succeed in their attempt to scare the children, the head of the family will satisfy the demons by giving them sake and mochi, or rice cakes, making them leave. (Source: Culture Trip

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