AKITA, Japan >> A well-known folk event that takes place on New Year’s Eve has been facing a shortage of people to carry on the tradition.
Namahage, which takes place in various districts of the city of Oga, was designated by the central government as an important intangible folk culture asset in 1978. Namahage are demons, traditionally played by local young men. Wearing masks and garments made of straw, they visit houses where children live and shout things like, “Are there any crybabies?”
However, the 56-household Sugoroku district in Oga has been forced to seek young people who are not from the area to be its namahage in order to carry on the tradition, due to the decreasing population and an aging society.
According to Oga’s board of education, only 86 out of 147 neighborhoods in the city held namahage events, citing “a lack of people to perform.”
In 1977, more than 95 percent of the city’s neighborhoods held namahage events.
In Sugoroku, which is relatively far from Oga’s city center, the exodus of young people has gotten worse each year, with the number of residents in their 20s and 30s falling dramatically. In the neighborhood, four aging namahage — played mostly by men in their 60s or older — visit about 20 households.
Mikio Miura, 68, is in charge of the event in Sugoroku. About 10 years ago, he started worrying that there would be no one to play the namahage in the near future. In a bid to maintain the tradition, he asked the Oga city government to introduce young people who would be willing to play namahage to his neighborhood.
In 2012, a Brazilian and a Uruguayan who were studying at Akita International University in Akita city took part in the Sugoroku event. Since then, the district has allowed three or four young people, who live outside the city and are not from Sugoroku, to play its namahage.
In 2016, Kyosuke Shinoda, a 22-year-old senior at Akita University who is from the area but currently lives in Akita, brought his friends to the event. This year, he returned with another university student and a man from Nagasaki prefecture.
Such moves have sparked criticism from other districts, with one saying, “Why did you allow outsiders to take part in this sacred community event?”
Miura responded, “For as long as I am well, I’ll never allow the event to be discontinued.”
Miura said he hopes that by allowing outsiders to portray the namahage, people outside the city will discover the tradition inherited from their ancestors.
According to Oga’s board of education, only Sugoroku has regularly accepted “outsiders” to play namahage.
“I hope the move by Sugoroku to accept young people from outside the city spreads widely,” an official of the board of education said.
The shortage of people to engage in traditional events is posing challenges in some towns:
>> Tatemon Festival in Uozu, Toyama Prefecture: It dates back about 300 years and is registered on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list. The event features seven Tatemon floats that are about 52 feet high and adorned with lanterns and other objects. Parading one float requires about 100 people. Since 1998, a group of volunteers from outside the prefecture called Tatemon Kyoryokutai has made up for the shortage of manpower. About 300 people from the group participated in the festival this summer.
However, an official of Uozu city’s board of education said: “We are still facing a shortage of people because the outflow of young people hasn’t stopped. Next year, we will have to gather 350 people (from outside the prefecture).”
>> Kureko Kodai Odori ancient dance from the Gokanosho Kureko district of Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture: Designated as an important intangible folk culture asset, the dance is said to have been started by displaced warriors of the Heike clan. An association to preserve the tradition began seeking members from outside the district when its membership dropped to four. Six people, including a city government official, have since joined to carry on the event.
>> Ino kabuki in Narita, Chiba prefecture: A form of kabuki said to have started in 1697 among farmers, the dance disappeared due to a lack of successors by 1965. Local residnets formed a preservation association and revived the kabuki form in 1999, but the members are aging.