You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry. . .
As a child in the west, the worst threat you might face for bad behavior during the year is a lump of coal in your stocking from Santa Claus. In Akita, however, midwinter mythical visitors are another sort altogether.
Namahage gods, which originated in Akita's Oga Peninsula, traditionally visit homes on the New Year or lunar New Year to terrify residents into behaving well. Unlike Santa, they come when the family is awake, burst into the home, and demand to know if anyone has been being lazy or if there are any crybaby children. (If there aren't any crying children when the namahage arrive, there typically are within seconds!)
AIU International Students Help Continue the Tradition
In many villages in Akita, this tradition continues today, but as some communities have experienced declining population, they have turned to students, including AIU international students, to play the role of namahage and to bless houses after the visit.
Adana Lindsley and Melina Nielson, from the University of Oregon, were part of a group of six Japanese and international students who took part in the namahage procession in Kayagasawa, a community near AIU and recently shared their story.
MELINA: During the namahage event, us six AIU students paired up into three groups of one international student and one Japanese. From there we decided who would actually dress up as the terrifying namahage and who would be the one to bless the families in their wake.
Both of my fellow exchange students slipped on the masks and straw costumes, but I instead got to watch my partner follow suit. I would be blessing families that night, in a language I barely understood. I was both nervous as hell and excited to be able to do something so important, but the script in my hand eased my knotting gut.
ADANA: I played the role of a namahage , along with two of the other AIU students. We wore straw coats, namahage masks in either red or green, and wielded oversized fake knives to visit each house of the village.
First Visits: Houses With Children
MELINA: We entered the first two or three houses together as a group, as those were the households with children, and I learned immediately that I couldn’t whip out my script and read from it when I needed to. This was the biggest challenge for me: memorizing the four blessings and the long bit at the end, wishing for them a good year. But I somehow did it, while stumbling and slipping on ice in the night, walking from house to house.
ADANA: When there were children present, the namahage stormed into the house, yelling and shouting to scare the kids. Some started crying immediately while others showed no reaction at all. After their parents calmed them down, the namahage would remove their masks and high-five the children.
MELINA: After we stormed the homes with children, scared the daylights out of them with our army of three namahage, then blessed them and revealed that the namahage were just students; we handed out mikan (tangerines) to the kids, gave them the most gentle of high-fives, and shared laughter with the families. Being able to interact with the community with such warmth and friendliness, in a country I’ve come to love so much, was very special for me.
Every House in the Village: Highlights and Challenges
ADANA: For houses without children, we simply announced our approach by yelling on our way to the front door before being greeted by the residents.
MELINA: At the first few houses after we’d split into student pair and supervisor, my determination to do the blessing flawlessly gave me the opposite results: I got so worked up that I forgot words here and there and my namahage comrade had to feed me lines.
I was surprised at how much alcohol the households offered us, but soon my belly was full (I’m 20, it’s fine) and my confidence had boosted to the point where I could recite those lines with ease, sometimes twice in a row as more family members fed into entrance. My namahage partner could focus on yelling and looking for children to scare rather than worry about the American royally messing up.
ADANA: My favorite experience was when one of the families invited my group in for a meal. The food was delicious and they were very friendly and hospitable. The grandfather asked a lot of questions about studying at AIU and my family back in the US. Though I couldn't understand all of the conversation, it was still fun to watch them chat and contribute when I could.
ADANA: At one point, I actually ended up overheating and when I tried to take off one of my jackets without removing the costume, I got stuck in the entryway of one of the houses. I had to get the help of both the accompanying teacher and the Kayagasawa Young Men's associate to help me remove the costume and jacket.
One of the ropes of the straw coat was rubbing against my neck so the mother of the household wrapped a towel around my neck to keep it from hurting me. I felt so bad for inconveniencing everyone, but they were all so nice about it and when everything was sorted out the family wished me luck.
MELINA: After we’d covered every home in Kayagasawa, we returned to the “headquarters” and settled down with our fellows and the men and women who had organized the event.
We filled our already-filled stomachs with udon, meat, and snacks, as well as sake we had received from one of the households; and chatted with each other about our families, our namahage experience that night, and various other things.
In just a few short hours, the group went from being strangers to having the familiarity of a group of good friends. I can’t harness my native tongue well enough to describe just how amazing it was, and I will absolutely be taking part in more community events.
Community Events at AIU
ADANA: The only other community related event I've participated in so far while at AIU was an apple farm stay in Yokote.
The two events were very different but in both cases all the locals I met were very friendly and welcoming. The atmospheres were both very warm and I'm so thankful that I've been able to participate in and experience these events.
MELINA: I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. Not only did it help me in my confidence with speaking my second language, but it showed me a traditional side of Akita that I’d been itching to see since I applied for AIU.