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UNESCO adds Japan's 'visiting deities' to registry of world intangible heritage

"Namahage" visiting deities descend from the mountains with torches in hand into Oga, Akita Prefecture, on Feb. 7, 2003. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

UNESCO added 10 "ritual visits of deities in masks and costumes" of Japan to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on Nov. 29.

The decision to add the visits by the deities, known as "raiho-shin" in Japanese, was made during a meeting of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Port Louis, Mauritius. As the newly registered visiting deities will be added to the existing entry "Koshikijima no Toshidon," a raiho-shin from an island in the southwestern Japanese prefecture of Kagoshima, the number of Japan's intangible cultural heritage listings will remain at 21.

In the raiho-shin rite, a person dons a mask or a costume to look like a certain deity, and visits neighborhoods or houses around New Year's Eve, New Year's Day or other special occasions to warn lazy residents and bring luck to the locals.

Besides "Toshidon," which was registered in 2009, the updated listing includes the deities "Oga no Namahage" from the northwestern prefecture of Akita, "Noto no Amamehagi" of Ishikawa Prefecture along the Sea of Japan, "Miyakojima no Paantou" from the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa and others ranging from the Tohoku region in the north to Okinawa, over eight prefectures. All 10 raiho-shin are already designated as Important Intangible Folk Cultural Properties by the Japanese government.

As "Namahage" resemble Toshidon in their visits to homes to bring good luck on New Year's Eve, calls to make a separate entry for them on the UNESCO list had been rejected in the past.

Because of this, the Japanese government submitted a proposal to have all of the raiho-shin added to a single listing in March 2016. As UNESCO puts priority on proposals by countries with few listings, Japan's application was not up for examination last year.

(Japanese original by Takuya Izawa, City News Department)

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