Namahage vs. Yamahage: The Demon Gods of the North

For international students and travelers to Akita prefecture in Northern Honshu, it is impossible to escape the relentless Namahage. Striking consistently each year, and marketing themselves through the prefectural gift shops, the Namahage demons from the Oga Peninsula region put a smile or frown (depending your age) on each and every face. As with most cultural traditions, there are adoptions and local areas incorporate their own version for various reasons. This is the case with the “Yamahage” of Yuwa (also in Akita). This paper briefly describes some similarities and differences I have personally noticed and learned through my trip to the Namahage Museum in Oga and participating in the Yuwa Yamahage festival firsthand.

     Namahage at highway rest stop.                       Namahage Museum masks.         

The Purpose of the Events

Both the Namahage and Yamahage are used to bring in a New Year. While Namhage appear in Oga on December 31st, Yamahage appear on or around January 15th. Both wear demon masks, but are actually considered gods (kami). Through loud roars, screams, and the scaring of young children in hopes they obey their parents (and in one case a little doggie!), the Namahage and Yamahage remove evil spirits from the household and bless its residents. The time difference can be explained because the Namahage come from the mountains on proper New Year (正月 Shoogatsu) and the Yamahage come during “Small New Year” (小正月 Koshoogatsu), which is when the first full moon is. Koshoogatsu is closely related to a bountiful harvest, so a smaller town like Yuwa may hold Koshoogatsu in a higher regard.

The Preliminary Ceremony

          The standard procedure on the night of mayhem is for unmarried men to go to a shrine where the priest will purify the Namahage/Yamahage costumes. The costume in both cases is made of dried rice straw thatched together. During the Yamahage event, the Yamahage had masks made of the same material. Occasionally, Yamahage masks are red. On the contrary, the Namahage are popularly seen with a variety of colored masks, particularly red, white, and blue. in.

“Greeting” the Locals

          Recalling my journey, I am with a handful of other international students and two Yamahage, one carrying a menacing knife (used to skin the bad children of course!) and one carrying a short pole with white streamers attached (to purify the house/residents). While approaching a house we all began making guttural, deep noises from our stomachs and occasionally yelling, Yamahage kita-zo, Yamahage! “The Yamahage have come, we are the Yamahage!”. We entered the household—still yelling and now hitting the sliding doors– and stopped in the entranceway where one takes their shoes off before entering a Japanese house. We yelled for all those in the house to come. With Japan’s aging population, and the general migration of younger people to larger cities thanks to improved transportation, most houses had no young children. Some houses were occupied by just one elderly citizen. And one house we went to had someone that was angry at us because she was not on the “come to my house to disturb me” list, proving this event is regulated by local community members and not all houses must participate. We apologized and continued through the cold and darkness to the next house.

Once the family comes, we are all to be completely silent as the head of the household tells us the family is behaving well. The citizens paid a kind of tribute of traditionally sake, but also beer and snacks to the Yamahage and more terrifying students and myself. An envelope with some money was given to the organizer and expected to be delivered back to the local shrine. All the houses gave us snacks and some had home-made edibles. This felt like trick-or-treating for adults and the sake helped keep the cold off and encouraged us to get into the mood of the monster.

Naturally, as an offshoot of the Namahage, the Yamahage shared many similarities to their distant cousins; however, there were some key differences lost in migration. When entering and leaving the household, Namahage perform seven and three in place steps respectively—there is no such stepping in Yuwa. Furthermore, while the Yamahage stopped at the entrance way, the Namahage enter the household and shout in all rooms. This may not be a difference, but may be a modern adaption to avoid snow, dirt, and gaijin into the local households of Yuwa.

Leaving the House

In either case, after the scaring, drinking, eating, and begging for forgiveness, the ritual is over. After blessing the house and residents by waving the pole with streamers over everyone’s heads, the Yamahage and Namahage leave the house. The Namahage and Yamahage leave the door open when they leave; the only explanation I received from this is because it is part of the ritual. If I had to guess, I would say if the door was closed, it would symbolize the demons are gone. On the other hand, the open door suggests there is unfinished business and the demons can return at any time. While running around the house, the demons may lose some of the straw from their costumes. These mementos are treasured by people as good luck charms so much that one of the households specifically asked to pluck a few from the costumes.

Final Thoughts

Seeing the Namahage performance and museum, and participating in the Yuwa Yamahage one night “festival” was spectacular. As several professors have told their students at this university that to experience culture: you need to live through culture. I am excited to see more of what Tohoku has to offer and hope others can as well. Being away from the major cities of Tokyo and Osaka has given the local residents a sense of pride in their own traditions and lifestyles. It was very interesting to see an adaptation of the Namahage in Yuwa and how Yuwa even allowed (male) students to participate. This shows that traditions do change and are modified over time, but the core values and meaning are still there. It will be interesting in the future to see how many of these local traditions remain truly “authentic” and how others will change or disappear. One thing is for certain, participating in the festivals and events of Tohoku keep them alive.


   The Yamahage and students pose for a picture during their night of mayhem.

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