Namahage (生剥?) in traditional Japanese folklore is a demonlike being, portrayed by men wearing hefty ogre masks and traditional straw capes (mino) during a New Year's ritual of the Oga Peninsula area of Akita Prefecture in northern Honshū, Japan.
The frightfully dressed men, armed with deba knives (albeit wooden fakes or made of papier-mâché) and toting a teoke (手桶?, "hand pail" made of wood), march in pairs or threes going door-to-door making rounds of peoples' homes, admonishing children who may be guilty of laziness or bad behavior, yelling phrases like "Are there any crybabies around?" (泣く子はいねがぁ Nakuko wa inee gā??) or "Are naughty kids around?" (悪い子はいねえか Waruiko wa inee ka??) in the pronunciation and accent of the local dialect.
The above description is the modern rendition of the namahage visit, but the practice has shifted over the years.
The namahage visits are nowadays practiced on New Year's Eve (using the Western 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 usually falls around mid-February, exactly two weeks after the Chinese New Year (Japanese: Kyūshogatsu).
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 are nowadays conceived of as a type of oni or ogre, it was originally a custom where youngsters impersonated the kami who made visitations during the New Year's season. Thus it is a kind of toshigami.
The legend of the Namahage varies according to an area. An Akita legend has developed regarding the origins of namahage, that Emperor Wu of Han (d. 87 BC) from 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 they are most commonly called in Japan, stole crops and young women from Oga's villages.
The citizens of Oga wagered the demons 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. But if they failed the task they would have to leave. But just as the ogres were about to complete the work, a villager mimicked the cry of a rooster, and the ogres departed, believing they had failed.
An obvious purpose of the festival is to encourage young children to obey their parents and to behave, important qualities in Japan's heavily structured society. Parents know who the Namahage actors are each year and might request them to teach specific lessons to their children during their visit. The Namahage repeat the lessons to the children before leaving the house.
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.
Similar ogre traditions
Similar traditions in other regions are called:
- Yamahage in the former Yūwa, Akita, now part of Akita, Akita.
- Nagomehagi[ja] (ナゴメハギ?) of Noshiro, Akita.
- Amahage[ja] (アマハゲ?) of Yamagata prefecture.
- Amamehagi[ja] (あまめはぎ?) of Ishikawa prefecture.
- Appossha[ja] (あっぽっしゃ?) of Fukui prefecture.
- Suneka[ja] (スネカ?), Anmo, Nagomi or Nagomihakuri in northern Iwate prefecture.
- Amaburakosagi[ja] (あまぶらこさぎ?) in Ehime Prefecture (Shikoku)
- Toshidon[ja], parallel practice in Koshikijima Islands, Kagoshima prefecture
- Akamata-Kuromata[ja], a parallel but secretive practice of the Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa 
In popular culture
- In the 1972 Tokusatsu series, Ultraman Ace, a Namahage is one of the monster of the week, commanding a huge Super Beast Snowgiran against the titular Ultraman. He was killed by the Father of Ultra via Father Shot.
- In the NHK English language education animation, Little Charo, chapter Tōhōku[ja], there appears a character named Mage, dressed just like a namahage (NHK's website explicitly says it is inspired by it)
- In early 2012, Japanese professional wrestler Kyosuke Mikami began working for Mexican promotion Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) under the ring name "Namajague", wearing a mask inspired by Namahage.
- In the 2006 video game Okami, Namahage appear as a sort of demon that plague the northern lands of Kamui. Unlike their real life incarnations, they appear to be considered the embodiments of loneliness in snowy lands, and are vicious man eaters than the admonishers of the misbehaving.
- Chōjin Neiger, a local hero in Akita Prefecture, was designed after the namahage.
- The Yo-Kai Watch video games feature a Namahage for the player to acquire.
- In 2014, the Japanese heavy metal band Ningen Isu released a video clip of a song named "Namahage" via Tokuma Japan Communications.
- List of Important Intangible Folk Cultural Properties
- Setsubun or mamemaki, practice of casting roasted soy beans to ward ogres or ghouls.
- tsuina[ja], a more ancient form of ghoul-warding passed down from China.
- Kasedori[ja], where men dress taper-headed straw costume Kaminoyama, Yamagata
- Krampus, a demonic creature, believed to accompany Saint Nicholas to punish children in some European countries during Christmas.
- Black Peter, a similar being who plays a similar role for Christmas celebrations in The Netherlands.
- Ogoh-ogoh - demons of Bali who are celebrated on their new year.
- Yamamoto 1978, The Namahage, p.9, 35
- Bocking 1998, Shinto Dict., p.98
- Heibonsha 1969, vol. 17, p.46, article on Namahage by Makita, Shigeru (牧田茂)
- Yamamoto 1978, The Namahage, p.13, passim.
- "秋田県男鹿市の民俗行事「なまはげ」の由来" (snippet). Shūkan shinchō. 41 (1). 1996., p.40 "「ウォー、泣く子いねがあ」; "鬼どもに一夜のうちに村から五社堂まで一千段の石段を築くこと、という条件を出す。石段が完成する直前に、村人が一番鶏の.."
- 日本大百科全書. 1. Shogakkan. 1984. ISBN 9784095260013., under "Akita," p.177
- Though January 15 is stated by Greene 2005, p.57, and a number of other sources without proper explanation
- De Mente, Boye (1989). Everything Japanese (snippet). Passport Books., p.80.
- Akita Prefecture 2003 (website)
- Hasegawa, Kai (長谷川櫂) (2002). "Time in Saijiki" (pdf). Japan review. Kokusai Nihon Bunka Kenkyū Sentā. 14., p.168 ([google snippet http://books.google.co.jp/books?id=9Pg-AQAAIAAJ])
- Akita Prefecture 2003, Namahage wepbpage
- Yamamoto, Yoshiko (1978). The Namahage: a festival in the northeast of Japan. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, Inc. p. 113. ISBN 0-915980-66-5.
- 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.
- "The Namahage Festival". Retrieved 19 August 2012.
- Bocking, Brian (1997). A Popular Dictionary of Shintō (previewpreview). Psychology Press. ISBN 9780700710515., p.98 under marebito notes the parallel
- Plutschow, Herbert E. (1990). Chaos and Cosmos: Ritual in Early and Medieval Japanese Literature (preview). Brill. ISBN 9789004086289., p.60 notes the parallel, but mistakenly says the islands are controlled by Kagoshima
- "第3話「雪の恋」". リトル・チャロ〜東北編〜. NHK. 2012-04-21. Retrieved May 2012. Check date values in:
- "Okumura contento con la llegada de Namajague". MedioTiempo (in Spanish). February 17, 2012. Retrieved July 23, 2013.
- 人間椅子「なまはげ」"Namahage" （AL「無頼豊饒」より）. YouTube. 10 June 2014. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
- (dictionaries and encyclopedias)
- Heibonsha (1969) . 世界百科事典(Sekai hyakka jiten).(world encyclopedia, in Japanese).
- Bocking, Brian (1997). A Popular Dictionary of Shintō (previewpreview). Psychology Press. ISBN 9780700710515., p. 98
- Greene, Meg; Agrhananda Bharati (ed.) (2005). Japan: A Primary Source Cultural Guide (preview). The Rosen Publishing Group. ISBN 9781404229129., p. 57. This source and many other sources give the date of "January 15", without properly commenting that this is the lunar calendar date used in old times (closer to mid-February, two-weeks after Chinese New Years, as explained above).
- (monograms and folklore studies)
- Yamamoto, Yoshiko; Institute for the Study of Human Issues (1978). The Namahage: a festival in the northeast of Japan (snippet). Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues. ISBN 9780915980666.
- Naumann, Nelly (1963). "'Yama no Kami': die japanische Berggottheit (Teil I: Grundvorstellungen)". Asian Folklore Studies (in German).
- Nakamura, Takao (中村たかお) (1951). "Notes on namahage (Possible remnants of primi- tive secret societies on the Japanese archipelago)(ナマハゲ覚書)". Minzokugaku kenkyu (民族学研究). XV.