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Hometown heritage focus with Satoshi Takahashi #5: Crafting fierce 'namahage' masks

Senshu Ishikawa is seen carving a "namahage" mask at a workshop inside the Namahage Museum in Oga, Akita Prefecture, on April 18, 2021. (Satoshi Takahashi)=Click/tap photo for more images.

Japanese photo journalist Satoshi Takahashi, renowned for pictures of the political unrest in Cambodia over the past decade or so, has recently focused on the diverse heritage of his hometown, the northern prefecture of Akita. For the fifth article in this series, Takahashi visited a craftsman specializing in "namahage" masks in the prefectural city and peninsula named Oga. The Mainichi previously introduced namahage as a person disguised as a "demon," but the mask maker says otherwise.

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    Senshu Ishikawa, 66, is the sole "namahage" wooden mask sculptor in Japan. His father took up the trade in the 1960s. At a time when the Japanese economy was growing rapidly, a local government had asked him to carve this handicraft. Ishikawa followed in his father's footsteps when he was 22.

    The product of two generations has come to be known as "Ishikawa masks," and their facial expressions are what most people across the country would recognize as namahage. The elder Ishikawa has since passed away.

    "I round off the horns and teeth, rather than sharpening them, because namahage are not demons but gods. They have fierce demon-like faces. I look in a mirror, make faces, and take in elements. Sometimes, I'm told that the masks and my expressions are similar," said Ishikawa.

    Each of the 90 or so districts on the Oga Peninsula have kept a local namahage tradition seen on New Year's Eve (when namahage played by young men make the rounds of houses). Each had masks varying in material and shape handed down for generations. Today, Ishikawa masks are used in about 30 of these events and have assisted in preserving the culture.

    The dignified and awe-inspiring faces are the signs of life that Ishikawa has engraved. "Both frightening and beautiful" is what the father and son have aspired for.

    A namahage makes visits to admonish misbehavior, chase away misfortune, and bring good health and a huge harvest of grains. Most representative of Akita's legends, the "gods" with their old and new masks will continue to show the significance of their existence.

    (The Japanese original of this article by Satoshi Takahashi was published on Dec. 31, 2021.)

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    Satoshi Takahashi was born in the city of Akita, Akita Prefecture, in 1981. Residing in Phnom Penh from 2007 to 2018, his photos captured the social problems of Cambodia and were published globally. In 2019, his publication titled "RESISTANCE" (the subtitle roughly translates to "the undaunted spirit of Cambodians") won the 38th Domon Ken Award sponsored by the Mainichi Newspapers Co.

    In Photos: Akita Pref. craftsman carves life into traditional demon-like 'namahage' masks

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