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The Monsters of the Oga Peninsula

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"Namahage": Face of New Year's Eve


Farming families on the Oga Peninsula in Akita Prefecture are visited on New Year's Eve and early New Year's Day by ferocious demons named namahage that strike terror into the hearts of young children.


Namahage are imaginary creatures, and the visitors are really village residents donning blue and red masks and wearing coats made from dried seaweed and straw. The namahage with blue masks are male demons, while the red masks denote female demons. The male demons hold aloft sacred staffs with strips of paper attached, while the female demons bang on wooden buckets with kitchen knives. They usually storm into people's houses yelling "Woah! Woah!" at the top their lungs, and they frighten young children by demanding to know whether there aren't any crybabies or lazy kids around.


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A sight like this makes kids behave! (Shinzan Shrine)

Children are startled by the sudden appearance of screaming "monsters," and either cling to their parents in tears or run to hide behind large objects. Parents reassure the ogres that no such children live there and appease them by serving food and drinks. The demons who've been properly entertained offer blessings before leaving, praying for the safety and well-being of the family, bountiful harvests, and rich hauls of fish.


Namahage is a tradition that is observed throughout the peninsula that juts out into the Sea of Japan. The ritual is carried out to cleanse the soul and offer prayers that the year to come will be a good one. The word namahage is believed to come from namomi (reddening of the skin from exposure to fire) and hagu (to peel off), and it refers to the peeling of shins that have turned red from people lazily sitting in front of the hearth too long.


The end of namahage is a signal that the New Year is about to dawn on the Oga Peninsula.