The Namahage stories and traditions are so ancient, nobody can agree upon their origins anymore…
The Namahage is a demon-or ogre-like creature which features prevalently in an annual New Year’s tradition in Akita prefecture. On the 31st of December, young men don a demon mask and straw raincoat, and carry a pail and a weapon made of wood. They roar menacingly, dance around bonfires, play taiko drums and visit every house in the village, searching for indolent and disobedient children to drag away into the mountains. Once the children have been sufficiently chased around and frightened, parents assure the Namahage that there are no bad children in the house, and appease them with food and sake. The Namahage encourages the children to keep studying and working hard, and the children make a new year’s resolution to behave. Finally, the Namahage wishes prosperity and good health on the family before moving on to the next house.(source: ilovejapan website)
The Namahage’s role thus reminds us a little of Santa Claus (or Saint Nicholas’) …”better be good, better be nice, Santa knows…” as the carol goes. Actually, in this repsect, the Namahage has a very close counterpart in the Krampus demon found in Germanic areas of Europe. This suggests the diffusion of a very distant common tradition from a common origin in the early Aryan/Caucasus/Eurasian steppelands (or homeland of the proto-Europeans). See the Horned demons of Europe and Images of oni from Onmyodo traditions and beliefs
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 the heat blisters, or more precisely hidako (火だこ hidako?) (Erythema ab igne or EAI), a rashlike condition caused by overexposure to fire sitting by the dugout irori hearth. Thus “Fire rash peeling” is generally believed to be the derivation of the name namahage.
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 may be mentioned in passing that it was customary to have azuki gruel on the “Little New Year”.
Although the namahage takes the form of a type of oni or ogre, it was originally thought to be a custom where youngsters impersonated the kami who made visitations during the New Year’s season. Thus it is a kind of toshigami.
The namahage would typically receive mochi 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.
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 is an agricultural custom where the kami from the sacred mountains visit. See the related marebito concept.
Namahage visits are nowadays practiced on New Year’s Eve using the Western Gregorian 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 15th day of the first lunar calendrical year, which is not the same thing as January 15 as it fluctuates and usually falls around mid-February, exactly two weeks after the Chinese New Year (Japanese: Kyūshogatsu).
From the Oga peninsula, comes a great favorite folktale that paints the Han Chinese as unwelcome maurauders in the distant past…
The Legend of the 999 Stone Stairs and the Namahage
Legend has it that the Emperor Wu of Han (d. 87 BC) China came to Japan bringing five demonic ogres to the Oga area, and the ogres established quarters in the two local high peaks, Honzan (本山)and Shinzan (真山). These oni, as ogres are most commonly called in Japan, stole crops and young women from Oga’s villages.
The citizens of Oga wagered the ogres 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. If on the other hand, the oni failed in their task, they would have to leave Oga never to return again.
The ogres accepted the wager and had reached 999 stairs when a quick-witted villager mimicked a cock crowing at dawn. So the ogres departed dismayed, believing they had failed.
In other regions, namahage act as village guardians and protectors against disaster… Eg., at the Namahage Sedo Festival
This famous winter rite is the union of the folk Namahage tradition and a Shinto festival.
The festival begins with Chinkamayu no Mai, a sacred kagura dance particular to the area. This is followed by the dynamic Namahage dance and drums. Finally, fifteen Namahage march down from the mountain bearing torches, bringing the night to its climax. The sticky rice cakes passed out by the demons themselves(unlike elsewhere where they are bribed with mochi cakes), are said to ward off disaster.
Sources and further reading:
Yamamoto, Yoshiko (1978). The Namahage: a festival in the northeast of Japan. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, Inc. p. 114. ISBN 0-915980-66-5.
Wikipedia’s entry “Namahage”
Namahage image: own work