Namahage in second bid for UNESCO list


Another effort is underway to pad UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list with a tradition in which people dressed as god-like demons visit homes near the end of the year to bring good fortune.

The effort is led by the northeastern city of Oga, Akita Prefecture, which is renowned for the visits by the so-called Namahage deity. But it failed in an earlier bid to have the ancient custom registered by the U.N. body because a similar event in southwestern Japan was already on the list.

In Oga, young men wearing fierce-looking masks resembling imaginary demons known as oni and straw capes visit each house in a neighborhood block on New Year’s Eve and shout out questions to determine whether there are disobedient children or lazy persons inside. Wielding wooden knives, they scare children with their loud voices.

They are plied with food and drink and leave the house promising the family will be blessed with good health and fortune.

Such customs also exist in cities and towns in Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata, Ishikawa, Saga, Kagoshima and Okinawa prefectures.

Eight municipalities from the seven prefectures and Oga formed a committee in 2014 to get UNESCO to list the custom. The Toshidon event on Shimokoshikijima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, which is similar, was added to the list in 2009.

The government and the municipalities launched the campaign after a U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization panel decided in 2011 not to list the Oga Namahage festival due to its similarity to the Toshidon event.

The committee hopes UNESCO will add the tradition to the list in 2016.

The tradition, however, faces challenges due to a decline in young people taking part in the events.

In Oga, some areas have had to stop the home visits because there are no single men available to dress up as Namahage. In the last fiscal year, nearly half of the 148 neighborhood blocks did not take part in the festival.

But some blocks have been able to resume the custom by allowing tourists or foreign students to participate.

Changing lifestyles in recent years has also led to changes in the tradition. More people prefer receiving Namahage demons around the entrance to their homes rather than allowing them inside because they do not want to sweep up the straw that falls from the costumes.

An official of the Oga municipal government expressed hope that adding the tradition to the UNESCO list will encourage people to keep it going.

“We hope local residents will feel proud of the tradition if it becomes part of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage and will be motivated to continue,” the official said.