Local residents and Namahage deities burst into cheers after hearing that "Raiho-shin, ritual visits of deities in masks and costumes,” including “Oga no Namahage,” was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, at the city government building in Oga, Akita Prefecture, on Nov. 29. (Shigetaka Kodama)

A group of 10 visiting-god festivals, including one in which mud-covered deities drive away evil spirits with foul odors, has been inscribed to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Approval of the folk events, collectively referred to as "Raiho-shin, ritual visits of deities in masks and costumes," and covering eight prefectures, was announced Nov. 29 at the 13th Session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Port Luis, Mauritius.

Explaining the reason behind its decision, a UNESCO committee stated on its website, “By performing the rituals, local people--notably children--have their identities molded, develop a sense of affiliation to their community, and strengthen ties among themselves."

In the festivals, which take place annually on days marking the beginning of the year or when the seasons change, local residents step into the role of gods, often decked out in outlandish costumes and frightening masks, issuing warnings as well as messages of joy.

A festival in Miyakojima, Okinawa Prefecture, featuring foul-smelling "Paantou" deities and one in Oga, Akita Prefecture, in which "Oga no Namahage" deities make their return, are among the newly recognized heritages.

As it is difficult to register individual events similar to those that already have the status in the same country, the central government decided to seek recognition for the 10 festivals as a group by adding nine similar events to “Koshikijima no Toshidon” (Toshidon deities on Koshikijima island) in Satsuma-Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, which was inscribed in 2009. The strategy proved successful.

The Intangible Cultural Heritage list covers the performing arts, festivals, social customs and traditional craftworks.

Traditions in other countries that newly received UNESCO's protected status include Jamaican reggae music and perfume-making techniques in southeastern France.

Facing chronically low birth rates and a declining population, the local areas concerned have been struggling to find a way to continue their folk rituals.

Residents hope that the UNESCO approval will boost efforts to hand down the important cultural assets to future generations.

More than 100 residents of Oga, Akita Prefecture, burst into cheers when a UNESCO official announced the decision during a deliberation open to public viewing at the Oga city government building.

“Oga no Namahage” deities, also on hand, let out roars of joy: "We did it!"

On New Year's Eve, Namahage demons visit homes to frighten children with the traditional phrase, "Are there crying children here?”

Ahead of the UNESCO registration, the number of applicants for the test to become an official “Namahage dendoshi" (Namahage evangelist), held by the Oga City Tourist Office and other entities since 2004, saw an increase with more than 100 would-be evangelists, exceeding the quota of 90, applying for the Dec. 2 test this year.

The number of such examinees had been falling since it peaked in 2005 with 112 candidates and fell below the quota in recent years, with around 70 to 80 candidates.

Makoto Amano, 59, a volunteer guide for Oga Peninsula and a certified Namahage evangelist, was delighted by the UNESCO recognition, saying, “I am happy that the ritual is seen as valuable.

“We may need to gear up to receive more tourists as a next step.”

In the Yoshihama district of Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, there is a traditional ritual called “Yoshihama no Suneka" (Suneka of Yoshihama) that has continued for more than 200 years to pray for abundant harvests and good health in the coming year.

On Jan. 15, which is traditionally referred to as "minor" New Year's Day in contrast to the "major" holiday on Jan. 1, residents portraying Suneka gods dress in monster costumes and scary masks, visiting about 300 homes in the community to scold people for being lazy and teach children good behavior.

Traditionally, adult men have played the role of the Suneka deities, but some children who were originally admonished for laziness, have started playing the role.

Since around 2000, a ritual preservation group has teamed with city-run Yoshihama Junior High School to visit homes while staging the annual ritual. Elementary school children have also taken part.

"I'm grateful that our small community has something to boast about to the world," said Momoka Yoshida, a third-year junior high school student who participated in the ritual.

Hisayoshi Kashiwazaki, who heads the preservation group, renewed his commitment to the historical intangible cultural asset, saying, “We will strive to hand down Yoshihama no Suneka as the tradition it has always been.”

(This article was compiled from reports by Mayumi Ueda, Chiho Yashiro, Nobuyoshi Kanai and Yosuke Watanabe.)

The following is a list of “Raiho-shin, ritual visits of deities in masks and costumes” added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Oga no Namahage of Oga, Akita Prefecture

Yoshihama no Suneka of Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture

Yonekawa no Mizukaburi of Tome, Miyagi Prefecture

Yuza no Koshogatsu Gyoji of Yuza, Yamagata Prefecture

Noto no Amamehagi of Noto and Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture

Mishima no Kasedori of Saga

*Koshikijima no Toshidon of Satsuma-Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture

Satsuma-ioujima no Mendon of Mishima, Kagoshima Prefecture

Akusekijima no Boze of Toshima, Kagoshima Prefecture

Miyakojima no Paantou of Miyakojima, Okinawa Prefecture

*Ritual inscribed in 2009