***Disclaimer*** You’ll never believe this….or maybe you will because we have subgroups who celebrate the scary German Krampus at Christmas time in the US.
According to National Geographic, in Catholicism, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children. His saints day falls in early December, which helped strengthen his association with the Yuletide season. Many European cultures not only welcomed the kindly man as a figure of generosity and benevolence to reward the good, but they also feared his menacing counterparts who punished the bad. Parts of Germany and Austria dread the beastly Krampus, while other Germanic regions have Belsnickle and Knecht Ruprecht, black-bearded men who carry switches to beat children. France has Hans Trapp and Père Fouettard. (Some of these helpers, such as Zwarte Piet in The Netherlands have attracted recent controversy.)
Krampus’s name is derived from the German word krampen, meaning claw, and is said to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology. The Krampus ultimately steals naughty children and takes them to the underworld. Read more here.
The Amaburakosagi are young Japanese men dressed up as scary ogre- demon oni and they go house to house to terrify and scare children out of laziness and disobedience on New Years Eve. They also taunt new wives.
They are ultimately about warding off bad spirits and you can win good luck for the year to come if you get a piece of straw from their straw garments.
The Amaburakosagi are specifically the Namahage from the Ehime Prefecture (Shikoku Island). There are many different names for the same creature concept represented in different areas of the country. Find a list towards the bottom of the page here.
In a deep, scary bellowing roar they come down from the mountains. Check it out below. ***It’s a bit disturbing.
The Namahage are welcomed and even fed and offered sake to drink by the parents of the household. It is celebrated within a festival setting and the most famous representation of the celebration is in the Oga area of the Akita Prefecture of northern Japan.
This famous winter festival is the union of the folk Namahage tradition and a Shinto festival. It had once fallen out of favor, but is now protected by UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list and is coming back in popularity due to tourism.
Namahage Sedo Festival
According to Namahage.co.jp the festival begins with Chinkamayu no Mai, a sacred kagura dance particular to the area. This is followed by the dynamic Namahage dance and drums. Finally, fifteen Namahage march down from the mountain bearing torches, bringing the night to its climax. Don’t miss the sticky rice cakes passed out by the demons themselves: they are said to ward off disaster.
According to Wikipedia, an obvious purpose of the festival is to encourage young children to obey their parents and to behave, important qualities in Japan’s heavily structured society. Parents know who the Namahage actors are each year and might request them to teach specific lessons to their children during their visit. The Namahage repeat the lessons to the children before leaving the house.
There are some disagreements on the folklore behind the Namahage tradition. Some ethnologists and folklorists agree the tradition relates to the simple belief in deities (or spirits) coming from far away to help humans by taking away misfortune….and bringing blessings for the new year. Others believe it is an agricultural tradition where the kami from the sacred mountains visit the humans.
There does seem to be the following agreed upon legend, however. Perhaps giving backstory to the motivations of the Namahage.
The Legend of the Namahage
According to Wikipedia, there is a predominant Akita area legend regarding the origins of Namahage yokai.
Chinese Emperor Wu of Han (d. 87 BC) came to Japan bringing five demonic oni (ogres) to the Oga area, and the oni established quarters in the two local high peaks, Honzan (本山) and Shinzan (真山). These oni stole crops and young women from Oga’s villages. The citizens of Oga bet the demons that if they could build a flight of stone steps, one thousand in all, from the village to the five shrine halls in one night (variant: from the sea shore to the top of Mt. Shinzan) the villagers would supply them with young woman as a gift every year….(sad face.)
Now, if they failed the task they would have to leave.
Just as the ogres were completing their work, getting to 999 steps, a villager mimicked the cry of a rooster, and the ogres departed, believing they had failed… never to be seen again.
***It is unclear to me why they come to the houses each year to teach discipline and obedience as a result of this particular legend. Perhaps because they fell short in their step building duties? Perhaps a yokai or Shinto expert could help explain this to us further in the comment section below? Also is it true that red masks represent male and blue masks represent female?? I read that somewhere.
If the Namahage’s purpose is to admonish laggards who sit around the fire idly doing nothing useful, one of the oldest refrains according to Wikipedia, is used by the namahage, when they say… “Blisters peeled yet?” (なもみコ剝げたかよ namomi ko hagetaka yo).
Namomi signifies heat blisters, or more precisely hidako (火だこ hidako) (Erythema ab igne or EAI), a rashlike condition caused by overexposure to fire, from sitting by the dugout irori hearth. Thus “fire rash peeling” is generally believed to be the derivation of the name namahage.
Some of the namahage’s other spoken lines of old were “Knife whetted yet?” (包丁コとげたかよ hōchōko togetaka yo) and “Boiled adzuki beans done yet?” (小豆コ煮えたかよ azuki ko nietaka yo). The knife apparently signified the instrument to peel the blisters, and it was customary to have azuki gruel on the “Little New Year”.
Although the namahage are nowadays conceived of as a type of oni or ogre, it was originally a custom where youngsters impersonated the kami who made visitations during the New Year’s season. Thus it is a kind of toshigami.
In Popular Culture
The Pokémon Duskull may be based on the Namahage, (as this Pokémon, according to Bulbapedia, may be based on the Boogeyman as well as the Grim Reaper, and the Namahage is Japan’s take on the Boogeyman).
If you find this fun and interesting and decide to expand on this with a story- let me know in the comment section below, and as usual…happy writing!