Snow Devils

Akita: Oga Namahage

Years ago Japanese festivals took place in front of the gods; now they take place in front of cameras. The villagers of the Oga Peninsula have given much thought to this development and have arrived at the perfect solution.

If you look at a festival calendar you will see that the Oga Namahage Festival takes place on the 13th, l4th and l5th of February. Those are the dates under which it is listed as one of the ‘Five Snow Festivals of Tohoku’. On those nights the famous masked, straw-clad demons appear in the grounds of the shrine on Mount Shin and perform a few brief dances. They are actually members of tourist organizations, but the cameramen are not to know this, and the masks look just as good and just as fierce whoever is behind them. Most of the photographs of the Namahage are taken during those three nights and most of the tourists who are present go home content in the belief that they have witnessed an important traditional event.

Illustration by Shinohara Akemi

In fact, the cameramen and the tourists have missed the event by about six weeks. The real Oga Namahage Festival takes place not in February, but on New Year’s Eve; not in a shrine, but in the homes of the villagers, and the people behind the demon masks do not belong to tourist organizations but, as tradition demands, to the young men’s associations of the villages. They have a history of perhaps a thousand years behind them and the annual event they stage is among the last and most genuine of the folk festivals of Japan. No wonder they keep the tourists away.

Late December, and the little hot spring resort of Yumoto is shuttered and deserted. Dusk falls at noon and, throughout the day, a thin half-hearted sleet. In the gloom of the kominkan – the little wooden shed that serves the village as a community centre – an old man sits plaiting a straw cape and staring out of the window at the dark sky.

“He was a Namahage in his time,” whispers Mori. “I remember him when I was a child. I always knew who was behind the mask, but it made not the slightest difference; he could put the fear of the devil into you. Every year I told myself I wouldn’t cry, and every year I cried.”

The name of these snow devils comes from the dialect word namomi, meaning a rash of red spots, and the verb hageru, meaning to ‘peel off’ or ‘take away’. The purpose of the Namahage’s visit is to threaten and punish lazy people – people so lazy, for example, that they sit all day with their legs in the warm kotatsu, which is how they get the spots. The main targets are newcomers to the community – children who have yet to learn their place, and young women who have recently married into the village and must be taught the virtue of hard work.

“When I was young,” says Mori, “there was no place you could escape them. They’d pull you out of the bath if they found you there. We lived by the beach and I was so terrified that I used to go out and hide behind the sea wall in the deep snow; but it did no good; they always caught me.”

One surprise is the words used for counting Namahage and other demons – ippiki, nihiki – the same words used for counting animals. In this village of sixty houses there will be four Namahage – yonhiki – and these will split into two teams which, between them, will visit all of the houses, except for the three in which a death has occurred during the past year. Despite their threats of violence and their demands for gifts of sake and money, the Namahage are regarded as bringing good luck to the houses they visit. The bits of straw that fall from their capes in the course of all the stamping and pushing are not swept up till the following morning, and some of the bits are kept in drawers as charms against illness and pain.

“There’s another man – he’s still quite young, though he doesn’t take the part of a Namahage any more. He’s so tall -tall as a foreigner – that he only had to appear in your doorway in a mask and your whole body went cold. When Japan started trying to be a ‘modern’ country back in the middle of the nineteenth century, the government wanted to ban the Namahage. It was primitive, they said – and perhaps it is. It was cruel, they said – well, yes, and so are men. We get sightseers here – it can’t be helped – we’ll get some tomorrow. The head of the village and the priest of the shrine have both invited a couple of busloads. But they’ll see nothing. There are no children in those houses, and the Namahage’ll go there first, before they’ve drunk, before their blood’s up. You wait. Let them call it what they like. You wait. You wait and see.”

December 31st. Dark at five. In the kominkan the long straw capes are carefully wrapped and tied round the demons’ bodies. Each wears three, and with their thick straw boots and with the wild, huge red and blue masks on their faces, they are twice the size of ordinary men. Even under the yellow electric lights, with people from the youth hostel looking on, they strike an awesome silence in whoever sees them. Each carries a stick to bang on the floor and a wooden silver-painted knife (one is stuck together with cellotape where a drunk demon cracked it the year before). They prowl about the tiny hut like caged bears until the signal comes to start. The priest blesses them, the young men toast them. At six o’clock the night swallows them.

At the house of the village head, with its two buses parked outside, the Namahage are well-behaved. They stamp and roar in the right places and go through the motions of looking for children, knowing they will find none. They drink the sake they are offered tamely and leave five minutes after they arrived. At the house of the priest they do the same and the happy tourists applaud them. For a little while we stand waiting in the darkness of a narrow alley, out of the gleam of the headlights. The tourists climb back into their buses. We hear the engines start, we watch them leave. By seven o’clock the black streets are empty. The festival begins.

Cruel? I don’t know. To those of us whose only childhood visitor was Santa Claus, the Namahage stand the world on its head. They do not bring presents, they demand them. They do not reward good children, they threaten good and bad alike.

Two little brothers, one nine, one seven, sit with their parents around the hearth. Their grandmother nurses a wide-eyed baby, singing to it softly, telling it that it will come to no harm. The Namahage enter, stamping and roaring, drunker at every house they visit. The nine-year-old giggles. The seven-year- old bites his thumb. “Waaaaww! Waaaaww!” the Namahage roar, thumping round the room in their mud-covered straw boots. “Any lazy little devils here? Any nasty, lazy little brats?” The nine-year-old stops giggling. The Namahage grab him by the waist and begin stuffing him head first into the sack they have brought for gifts. “You’re coming to the mountain, you are, little brat! We’ll teach you! We’ll show you! Waaaaww! Waaaaww!” The baby and the seven-year-old brother scream together. The nine-year-old, half in, half out of the sack, gives up the attempt to hold back his tears. His cheeks look as though they have broken out in a rash. He knows who the Namahage are; he has seen and spoken to these young men every day for as long as he can remember, and he is beside himself with terror.

Another house. A little five-year-old girl who has been sitting quietly watching the cartoons on television has hidden herself behind the living-room sofa. The Namahage stamp through the house and fail to find her. The mother smiles and winks at the sofa. They drag the little girl from behind it, screaming, white-faced, with hardly enough breath in her body to shout “Mummy! They carry her into the next room, where the trays of sake are laid out for them, and then – to top all previous terror – the little girl herself, sobbing pitifully, is made to pour their sake for them.

“They used to go on till midnight,” says Mori, as we stand in the cold, empty air of the street, listening to the banging and roaring from inside the house, watching the giant shadows stride across the paper screens. Dogs bark. Children scream. New Year on the Oga Peninsula.

“They’ll finish at nine tonight, I expect. They’ll want to go back and watch Kohaku.”

“Are they always this violent?”

“Violent? Huh! They’re as timid as mice if you ask me. It’s not like the old days when practically everyone ended up with a broken window. Why, I remember… “

And he stops and laughs and fills my sake cup, and then says nothing for a long time.

“Do you see…” he continues slowly, “why? Do you see how it binds the village together? Teaches everyone their place? Teaches them what’s wanted of them? Does it with humour, without real harm? Those children will be Namahage themselves in a few years’ time. Do you see how…good…it is?”

I sip my sake and listen to the dogs barking.

“Yes, I do,” I say. My breath is white in the last air of December.
Mori looks at me for a long time without speaking.

“Is it cruel?”

“It’s good,” I say. “It’s very, very good.”

“Is it primitive?”

“Yes,” I say. “It’s fine.”






昨年12月、ひっそりとたたずむ湯本温泉郷は閉鎖され人けもない。お昼にはほこりが舞い、一日中ぱらぱらとみぞれが降っている。公民館 ―村の集会所として建てられた木造小屋―の暗がりに一人おじいさんが座り、窓の外に広がる暗鬱な空を眺め藁で袈裟を編んでいる。
























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