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Hometown heritage focus with Satoshi Takahashi #6: Devilish deity 'namahage' resurrected

"Namahage" with revived masks participate in a traditional event in the snowy Sugoroku district of Oga, Akita Prefecture, on Dec. 31, 2021 (Satoshi Takahashi)=Click/tap photo for more images.

Japanese photojournalist Satoshi Takahashi, renowned for his pictures of political unrest in Cambodia, has recently focused on the diverse heritage of his home prefecture of Akita in northern Japan. The previous article in this series focused on the crafting of traditional "namahage" masks. Contrary to their devilish looks, namahage are believed to be deities that admonish laziness and wrongdoing, bring well-being and provide good grain harvests to the people they visit. This time, Takahashi caught them in action.

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    In early December 2021, I met Mikio Miura, the head of a group that preserves the "namahage" tradition in the Sugoroku district of the city of Oga. The group had succeeded in reviving its masks.

    "Look, this mask has just been completed," the 72-year-old man told me. I made eye contact with the namahage mask in his arms. In that special moment, I sensed it breathing with new life.

    Year-end namahage events are held throughout the city but they differ from district to district. Face masks that had been first put to use in Miura's neighborhood more than a hundred years ago were known as "Sugoroku masks," from the area's name. In the 1980s, when they became too old to be used, they were sprinkled with salt for purification and incinerated.

    Substitute masks were created, but they looked quite different from the original ones. Rarely used, they ended up being displayed at a local facility for children. After that, the district used artifacts carved by the sole sculptor of such wooden masks, Senshu Ishikawa, 66, and his now deceased father. They were known as "Ishikawa masks."

    Miura then requested that Ishikawa revive the "Sugoroku masks." With the help of a city government subsidy for preserving this cultural heritage, unique Sugoroku facial costumes were resurrected for the first time in more than 30 years.

    The faces are chiseled from paulownia wood and have horns similar to deer antlers. The graceful, shiny hair is of equine origin while the bold mustaches and eyebrows are made of hemp.

    "This is such a magnificent mask. This year, I'm going to wear this," Miura said as he looked at one of the creations. The man who has taken the shape of a namahage each year for more than half a century seemed deeply satisfied.

    A blizzard hit the area on the night of New Year's Eve. "Aah! The namahage are here," a pair in the new guises growled as they marked fresh footprints on the white earth. They had opened a new page of the folklore's history.

    (The Japanese original of this article by Satoshi Takahashi was published on Jan. 19, 2022.)

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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, he captured the social problems of Cambodia through his photographs, which were published globally. In 2019, his publication titled "RESISTANCE" (whose subtitle roughly translates to "the undaunted spirit of Cambodians") won the 38th Domon Ken Award sponsored by the Mainichi Newspapers Co.

    More information in Japanese can be found at the following Mainichi Shimbun pages online:

    Domon Ken Award: https://www.mainichi.co.jp/event/aw/domonken_archive.html

    In Photos: Devilish 'namahage' hunt out, teach lessons to kids in Japan's Akita Pref.

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