• Home
  • /
  • Interviews
  • /
  • Namahage: Should You Really Be Afraid Of These Japanese Demons?

Namahage: Should You Really Be Afraid Of These Japanese Demons?

Yoshitaka Kobayashi (far right on the picture above) is the creator of Namahage Satokagura. They are a group whose performances mix traditional drums, dance, and embodying traditional Japanese spirits. They perform in Japan, but also have made appearances in other countries such as France and Taiwan. In this interview, Mr. Kobayashi tells us about keeping and transmitting traditions and the power of emotions.

Could you please explain what your job consists of?

I’m the creator and director of Namahage Satokagura. It’s a music group that bases itself on a tradition called namahage, which is from the Oga Peninsula in Akita Prefecture. On the night of December 31st, the namahage comes down from the mountain to the town. They are messengers of the kami [Japanese deity] living in the mountain. At first, they are a group of six, then they divide themselves into two groups of three and go from house to house. The main difference with other traditional Japanese festivals is that it’s not celebrated as a big group but in each home. 

I wanted more people to know about this tradition, so I thought about a way to bring it to the outside world. That’s how I got the idea to mix the traditions of namahage and traditional Japanese drums. Namahage Satokagura is a music group doing this new form of art.

I play drums, compose the music, and the choreographies. Since I want to express the relationship between the namahage and human beings, I do not wear a mask. Other members who wear a mask join us, and we create stories from that. This way, it’s easy for the audience to understand that namahage are beings who live close to humans.

When did you get this desire to introduce namahage to people?

When I was a child, I could see my father make namahage masks. The first records of the namahage celebration date back to 400 years ago, but actually, we don’t know when it started. It’s been around for hundreds of years. The knowledge about masks came from my father’s ancestors, and we ignore how far back it dates from. Since we shouldn’t lose such skill, my father taught me how to make masks, too. So, since I was a child, I’ve always been concerned with how we could make sure this tradition endures.

Also, I’ve always liked making music. When I was in high school, I was part of a heavy metal band. I loved playing the drums. So, the idea of mixing modern music and traditional music came naturally to me. As a result of all this, Namahage Satokagura was born in 2002.

What kind of creature is the namahage?

The namahage embodies the idea that if you do something wrong, the kami will punish you. I think a similar idea exists in most religions. The namahage comes to town only once a year, but the kami watches everyone’s lives and actions throughout the year. 

Since namahage are the messengers of the kami, when they go to each house, people invite them to come in and serve them food and drinks. It’s during this time that the namahage will tell children, “I know you didn’t study well at school!” or, “Stop spending your time only playing video games!” This is based on what their parents tell us throughout the year. [laughs] We also scold parents because we hear information from their spouses. “Stop playing the pachinko so much and work more!” Sometimes even adults cry when they meet us. [laughs]

When looking at older masks, the namahage’s appearance used to be different. Instead of horns, they had a hump on the forehead. We believe that it was inspired by ascetics from ancient times. The samurai who had killed a lot of people during the Sengoku period had to deal with substantial psychological damage, and many of them decided to enter Buddhism. They wore white clothes and a specific headwear on their forehead, and they went to the mountain to practice asceticism. When they’d come back to town, their faces would be tanned or red from the sun, their clothes and hair would be damaged. And they would go from house to house as messengers from the divine and encourage people to have a correct way of living, to find happiness. That’s probably the origins of the namahage. 

人, 民衆, 座る, グループ が含まれている画像

Namahage visiting a house on New Year’s Eve

Is there a specific message you would like to convey through popularizing the namahage?

I’d like to make people understand that being scared of something can be useful in some situations. 

In Japan, we have a saying that for a child, the four scariest things are thunder, earthquakes, fire, and his father. But I think we can’t say this anymore nowadays. Japanese parents tend to be too kind to their children. As a result, even when parents scold them, it doesn’t have an effect. The same seems to happen with school teachers. 

When the children are scared of the namahage, it’s usually because they know they didn’t do something right. For example, they didn’t study enough for school, or they said something not nice to someone. The namahage’s presence forces them to reflect on what they did. If they’re scared, it’s proof that they have a sense of justice. The namahage is not here just to scare children, but to invite them to reflect on their actions. 

Later the parents can also use the namahage as an everyday life tool just by saying, “If you don’t behave properly, the namahage will come!” 

What are your projects for the future?

I would like to perform all around the world. I’d like not only people from Japan but also from other countries to know about namahage. In Japan, there are a lot of tiny festivals that have a strong character like this. We are often covered by the media, but the exact nature and the depth of the festival are hard to transmit. The best way for that is to perform directly in front of people

When we go to other countries, the most challenging part is to get people to understand what a kami is. The belief in a lot of different deities can be hard to grasp for people from a monotheistic culture. But, even if our cultures are different, we can transmit things by emotion. We did a performance in the streets of Montmartre in Paris a few years ago, and a lot of teenagers with pierced noses came to listen to us. When we asked if they liked it, they said we were cool, and we reminded them of Slipknot. [laughs] By performing, we can share emotions, and that makes me happy.

The place where I live, the Oga Peninsula, is really on the edge of Akita Prefecture. It’s hard to make people come this far to know about this tradition, so I believe it’s essential that we go out into the world to transmit it.

Is there anything from the Japanese spirit or culture that you integrate into your everyday life?

I integrate a lot of traditional elements into my daily life. I wear samue [traditional working clothing] and traditional Japanese clothing. My father is a farmer, and even when I do farm work, I wear Japanese-style clothes. They’re very comfortable. Wearing them has helped me appreciate the qualities of older Japanese things.

I also drink tea every day; I make tea every morning. Thanks to that, I rarely fall ill. Nowadays, you can buy tea in plastic bottles at the supermarket and drink it immediately. But I think the time it takes to make tea is precious. You prepare hot water and your teapot. You get the teapot warm; you have to be cautious of the quantity of tea… As a result, the taste of tea changes every day. When I make tea, I think of what I’m going to do today, or I think of new ideas for my last music piece. The routine of making tea helps me relax and organize my thoughts.

The traditional Japanese lifestyle is careful about what you eat and drink. For example, I also make my own pickles. Now, I’m making umeboshi because it’s plum season. I grow shiso [Japanese herb] in my garden and use it when I eat sashimi, for example. I imitate what my grandmother used to do. 

In my everyday life, I use a lot of modern things like computers. I create music on my iPad. But I’ve found that integrating elements of traditional Japan to my lifestyle is good for my health and my creativity. 

Before talking to Mr. Kobayashi, I had never thought of fear as something that could be positive. For me, fear was inherently negative (except, maybe, for the occasional roller coaster thrill to feel alive). However, after listening to him and in light of the recent pandemic, I’ve come to realize that all emotions, even the ones we perceive as negative, have a value and a meaning. Too much fear can be paralyzing or can lead to making bad decisions. Still, the correct amount of fear can help us protect ourselves from realistic risks. 

The namahage tradition is meaningful because these messengers are here to remind us of the consequences of our actions. However, they do not induce fear of the future. They remind the people that they should be vigilant of their actions all the time, and only then can they find peace and happiness. 

If the namahage came to your house on New Year’s Eve, what would they tell you?

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.