Bonding through Tradition
Feb. 21, 2017
Traditional Japanese demon-like characters that call for a good harvest and good luck are now serving a new role, by helping bond communities together.
The New Year tradition of Namahage in northern Japan dates back hundreds of years. The Namahage creatures used to go house to house warning children not to be lazy and to behave themselves.
The small fishing village of Sugoroku has about 60 households. Most of the residents are more than 60 years old while the younger people have moved to the cities.
Young single men used to play the role of Namahage. On New Year's Eve, their voices could be heard bellowing throughout the town but now, all of the men who serve as Namahage are over 60 and there are only 6 of them.
Mikio Miura, 67, is the leader, and has been involved in the annual tradition for 50 years.
"We shouldn't make any excuses. We need to reinvent the role of Namahage even though the younger people have moved out," Miura says.
The team starts preparing early each winter. They twist rope using straw to make their costumes called "kera," and dedicate the kera and masks to the local shrine.
They decided that this year, they wouldn't only call for a good harvest and good luck but will also interact more with the elderly.
"If the community becomes any smaller, there will be fewer people and no kids. We cannot let this event come to an end," Miura says.
New Year's Eve arrives and, at sunset、Miura and another members start dressing as Namahage. Miura puts on his red mask and they first visit a man in his 60s who is spending the New Year holiday alone.
"How are you?" they ask him.
"I'm fine, just fine," he says.
Despite his frightening appearance, Miura offers warm words.
"It must be tough being alone. Be careful not catch a cold. And please help the community," a costumed Miura tells the man.
Miura and his friends continue making house calls, and eventually visit an elderly couple, Katsumi Kato and his wife, Kimino, who have been living on their own for more than 30 years.
Their children used to come back for the New Year holiday. But since their grandchildren have grown up, they haven't come back as often.
"I want to see my kids and grandchildren. But I can't. Things didn't work out this year," Katsumi says.
Kimino takes the Namahage visit seriously. She spent 3 days cooking them a meal. Katsumi puts on a kimono so as to greet the Namahage in formal attire.
"How about some sake? You should drink it!" Katsumi says when Miura arrives.
Miura savors the warmth and hospitality.
"They look forward to the Namahage visit. I think the couple is happy because people like us are keeping an eye on them. That's very important," he says later.
The times may be changing on the Oga Peninsula. Namahage used to focus on children but they've now shifted their sights to seniors. But some things will never change, like the sense of community and a friendly smil