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The traditional Namahage ritual in Oga, Akita Prefecture, is under threat as citizens are split over whether the annual event should be held amid the novel coronavirus epidemic.

Seven districts in the city have decided to hold it this year, while six have decided to suspend it and 80 are still considering the options.

The city government is calling on its districts to host the Namahage event in order to preserve tradition, having distributed documents on infection prevention measures in mid-November to districts aiming to hold it.

“Once it stops, it will be hard to resume,” Mayor Koji Sugawara said at a press conference.

During the ritual, people dressed as ogres visit homes in the region on New Year’s Eve, telling children to behave by shouting, “Are there any crying kids?” in the local dialect. The ogres are said to represent the gods of the mountains who admonish people and ward off calamity, and local residents offer them food and alcohol.

The annual event was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2018. Around 90 of Oga’s 148 districts usually host the ritual.

The association for preserving the Bon odori festive dance and the Namahage ritual in the city’s Iwakura district decided to conduct the winter ritual in order to prevent it from ending. “What is left of Oga without Namahage?” a member said.

The group plans to implement measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, such as banning eating and drinking during the event, urging people dressed as ogres to wear face masks under their ogre headgear and limiting their visits to just the entrances of homes.

“It is our first time (to adopt prevention measures), so we are not sure about what measures are appropriate,” Kota Yoshida, 41, chairman of the association, said.

By contrast, an association in the Ashizawa district, which usually has Namahage ogres visiting over 100 homes, decided to cancel the ritual.

The district usually welcomes many visitors, with those who have moved to other regions and have returned for the New Year’s holidays sometimes taking the role of ogres. Even if the district carried out the event, it would have to deny participation to people from outside the prefecture, the association said.

“It was a difficult decision,” Yasuaki Takeda, 41, director-general of the association, said. “It’s hard to say (people from other regions) can’t come, and the Namahage ogres who are supposed to ward off evil should not carry coronavirus risks.”

In the Sugoroku district, which also decided to cancel the event, international exchange students from Akita International University in the prefectural capital of Akita have taken the role of ogres since about 10 years ago.

People from the district are aging, with the average age above 70, and they rely on people returning to the district for the holidays and on foreign students to continue the ritual.

“We have welcomed the event every year with a fresh feeling, but it can’t beat the coronavirus,” Mikio Miura, the 71-year-old chairman of a local Namahage association, said.

“Next year, we want to have two years’ worth of ogre shouting,” Miura added, hoping for an end to the pandemic.

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