Learning about Akita Lore: ‘namahage’

Lecturers
Mr. Makoto Saruta Resident of Oga City in the Shinzan area

Contents

Written by Fumiko YABUKI

Editor; former designer. Born and raised in Akita, she is a hardcore Akita native! She is Deputy Chief Editor for the free magazine “non-biri”.

Photography by Yōma FUNABASHI

4. ‘The Rural Motherland of the Soul’

We’ve witnessed the New Year’s Eve ‘namahage’ ritual at first hand. For our last article, Mr. Saruta has been kind enough to share with us some of his thoughts about the tradition.

Yabuki
Mr. Saruta, you’ve been involved with ‘namahage’ for five years or so now. How do you find it? Have your opinions of the region changed since you started taking a more active role in the ‘namahage’ ritual?
Saruta
To tell you the truth, I moved here when I was a fifth grader at elementary school – so I’d been living here a while before I really started getting involved with ‘namahage’. I felt like an outsider here, so I was a bit nervous about taking part initially. I didn’t really know what the locals thought of me, so even though I lived here, I couldn’t make up my mind about ‘namahage’, and thought it wasn’t really for me.
Yabuki
Sure. I see what you mean.
Saruta
Then when I left my office job and started up the café, I tried to get involved in community events as much as I could. It tended to be the older people that I associated with for these. When I participated in local events, the older members of my village said things to me like, “Seeing as how you live here in Shinzan, you should have a go at ‘namahage’ ”. That’s how I got into ‘namahage’.
Yabuki
Yeah, that makes sense!
Saruta
I was aware I ought to show some community spirit, but I found it quite difficult to just throw myself into an event like that with people I didn’t really know. But I knew that I couldn’t just ignore it and avoid it. You do a lot of this kind of thing if you live in the country.
Saruta
Since I’ve been doing this, I’m often asked, “Why do you carry on with it?” When answering questions like this, people often say things like, “It’s about keeping alive a local tradition that has endured from ancient times.” But that’s not really my motive, as far as I’m concerned, you know.
Yabuki
Yes, I know what you mean.
Saruta
We all live in the same village, but we lead separate lives and do different jobs, so we don’t really have much contact with each other. ‘Namahage’ allows us to interact and reconnect with each other once a year.
Yabuki
You mean, it’s not about making an effort to connect with each other just for the sake of keeping the tradition alive. It’s more the other way round. The tradition endures precisely because you get pleasure from the community interaction.
Saruta
Yes, I think that’s the real reason here. People often say things like, “Mr. Saruta, what does ‘namahage’ mean to you?”
Yabuki
Yes, sure. And what do you say to them?
Saruta
I never quite know how to answer. “What does it actually mean to me?” I used to think. To borrow an expression about the countryside, my response is that ‘namahage’ represents the ‘furusato’ of the soul, or ‘the rural motherland of the soul’. This sums it up perfectly, I think. [Note: ‘furusato’ – literally ‘home town’, ‘village of one’s birth’, with connotations of belonging to a community, and notions of nostalgia for the countryside].
Yabuki
Yes, I see what you mean. ‘The rural motherland of the soul’.
Saruta
It a bit like something that we keep stored away in our memory. I’d say you feel this even if you live in the city. You’ve experienced living somewhere when you’re young, then even when you grow up, the impressions of that stay with you, and are an underlying influence on the way you live in later life. As an adult, when I look back at key highlights of my life, ‘namahage’ features prominently. It’s an important part of what makes me who I am. Of course, there’s more to it than that.
Yabuki
Maybe rituals and festivals like this can be something of a guiding principle for us, do you think?
Saruta
Yes, they are a way for people to connect with each other. When I was little, there were several funerals that took place at our home. If you’re a child, and you see something like that, you get a real sense of what human relationships are all about. Nowadays, people are more concerned about themselves, focused on convenience in their lives, so we’re more detached from sentiments like this.
Yabuki
I suppose the sentiment here is something along the lines of, ‘I trust my neighbor. I can always rely on him for the festival.’ Perhaps the more we think about making our lives easy and convenient, the more we lose a sense of what is really important in life.
Saruta
I think contact with others and the feeling of interacting with other people is important. It might be a hassle sometimes, and often the easier course of action is just to avoid it, but I’ve found that when I’ve traveled outside the area, outside my community as it were, I’ve missed the sense of community and felt a bit sad about it.
Yabuki
Exactly! As if the sense of belonging to a community has disappeared.
Saruta
It’s like there’s something missing in terms of your interaction with others, like there’s a bit of warmth lacking. When I was working away from Akita in a different prefecture, I still had a good time hanging out with friends, my income was ticking over, and I had a pretty comfortable life. But I often found myself thinking, “Is this it? Am I really happy with things as they are? Don’t I want something more?”
Yabuki
Almost like you had ‘no inner sense of being’ you mean?
Saruta
Yeah, that’s it. The thought of growing old just like that, in the middle of the city, frightened me. I suddenly felt scared.
Yabuki
So you felt an urge to reconnect with the area you were born in or where you grew up?
Saruta
That’s right. In fact, I’d originally left the prefecture to work somewhere else because I was a bit fed up here. Then when I came back, I still argued with my mother every day, and there were still things I didn’t like. But I had a real sense of ‘living my life’, if you know what I mean, and that was because I had returned to the countryside again. I think that was the feeling I’d been longing for.
Yabuki
Sure. I see what you mean.
Saruta
I don’t know how long the ‘namahage’ tradition is going to carry on, but it does give me a sense of belonging here, a feeling of being part of the community.

On first impressions, the ‘namahage’ ritual might strike one as frightening and disturbing, but in reality, when you experience it for yourself, you see that the interactions between the ogres and the different households are actually very warm and friendly. I’ve come to realize that for people who live in the village, ‘namahage’ provides a set of guiding principles for how they live their lives. It really is something to be cherished. Notwithstanding this, there has been a noticeable decrease in the number of families who do this every year. The ‘namahage’ is a symbol of Akita – it’s an event with many different aspects and levels to it. We really hope it continues to be enthusiastically passed down from generation to generation, and stays true to its original format.

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