Pandemic Curtails Ritual Deity ‘Visits’ for New Year

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A man wearing a surgical mask holds a Namahage mask in the Okura district of Oga, Akita Prefecture, on Dec. 6.

The ritual “visits” of deities in masks and costumes held in throughout Japan on New Year’s Eve and New Year days, known as “Raiho-shin gyoji” (see below), will not be immune from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

To keep the tradition going, the Namahage of Akita Prefecture’s Oga Peninsula and other well-known rituals will be scaled down in deference to countermeasures to prevent the spread of infection or, in some cases, prevention will take priority and they will be canceled outright.

As each region offers a collective prayer for an end to the pandemic, they will take into consideration their own situation, including how the aging population is making keeping the traditions alive more difficult.

Every year on New Year’s Eve, divine messengers portrayed by men wearing ogre masks and called Namahage make the rounds of houses in Oga city, shouting “Are there any crying kids?” or “Are there any naughty kids?”

Designed as a prayer for a bountiful harvest of five grains and for happiness, the ritual is carried out separately in about 90 of the city’s 148 districts. As the local residents age, the roles of the Namahage are increasingly being filled by those living elsewhere who have returned to their hometown for the New Year holidays.

In the Okura district, the ritual was suspended about a decade ago due to a shortage of residents who could take charge of it, but was revived by the younger generation in 2018. This year as a coronavirus countermeasure, the Namahage will be played only by those who did not leave the prefecture since Dec. 15. As they go door to door, they will not go beyond the entrance of the house, and will accept no treats of alcoholic beverages or food. They will wear surgical masks under the ogre mask.

As of Dec. 18, 42 districts had planned to hold Namahage rituals, while 30 had decided to cancel, according to the Oga city government. Among the latter, the Sugoroku district, which had relied on foreign students at Akita International University in Akita City to act as Namahage, judged it “cannot accept people from outside the district” this year.

Sugoroku residents average about 66 in age, which raises the risk of serious illness from infection. “We mustn’t allow residents to get infected by holding a Namahage ritual that is supposed to bring good health,” said resident Mikio Miura, 71.

■ No making the rounds

Other places are working on countermeasures to allow for their own Raiho-shin gyoji.

In the Amamehagi ritual in Ishikawa Prefecture’s Okunoto district, men in tengu (long-nosed goblin) and other ogre masks go around to houses to ward off bad luck. The Igisu district of Wajima, which has many elderly residents, will hold its Amamehagi in January as planned, but instead of going house-to-house, will instead purification and other rites at a local shrine.

The town of Yuza, Yamagata Prefecture, has canceled its Amahage ritual, which prays for good health, as there are many elderly living in the houses to be visited.

■ Unity crucial in times of disaster

According to folklorist Noritake Kanzaki, the traditional events went beyond their roles as warding off evil and ushering in the New Year with new determination. They also played a function of enhancing the region’s readiness to respond in times of disaster.

The division of tasks to hold the events across generations, from organizing to playing roles, unified the residents, which became vital when there was a fire or other disaster.

“If, amid the aging of the population and continued depopulation, the events are suspended because of the pandemic, it may lead to the lowering of the region’s functions,” Kanzaki said. “If cancelation cannot be avoided, it is essential to make sure that they will be resumed after the coronavirus is brought under control.”

■ Raiho-shin gyoji

Events held annually in which deities in gaudy costumes and masks visit local communities as prayers for good harvests and happiness. In 2018, a set of 10 rituals from eight prefectures were registered on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.