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Japanese folklore scholar speaks about safeguarding cultural heritage

Japanese literature and folklore scholar Dr. Michael Dylan Foster visited Beloit College on Fri, Oct. 6 to deliver the Asian Studies Department’s first guest lecture of the semester, “Visiting Deities: Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Rural Sustainability in Japan.”

Dr. Foster spoke about his on-site research concerning efforts by rural Japanese communities to maintain their cultural heritage in light of globalization, the changing nature of tourism, and aging populations. His focus has been the Namahage and Toshidon rituals, two very similar but geographically disparate Japanese “visiting-deity rituals.”

During the Namahage and Toshidon rituals, which are practiced each New Year’s Eve in Japan’s Akita and Kagoshima prefectures respectively, young local men dress as demons by donning large masks and visit young children in their homes. They scold the children for misbehaving during the past year before praising them and sharing some food and drink with the family. The mask styles vary between the prefectures as well as among individual villages and neighborhoods, as do more specific elements of the traditions: in the Toshidon ritual, for example, parents fill out an application ahead of time, listing what their children should be scolded and praised for, while the Namahage spirits stick to a script. 

The figures that visit homes in both traditions represent deities arriving from another world, making the experience a spiritual one for the children involved―while it’s still supposed to terrify them. In addition to being integral to local culture (the children’s great-great-grandparents went through this, too), the rituals have a practical use, Foster told his audience. Akita is a very cold rural area whose citizens must understand that hard work and cooperation from all sides is imperative. And in Kagoshima, a policeman told Foster that he’d never seen such well-behaved children before.

The rituals have changed in some ways, of course, with the rise of globalization and as they continue to be practiced into the 21st century―for example, some of the masks are now constructed using catcher’s masks. More significantly, while men about 20 to 25 years old traditionally wear those masks, the ages of participants has climbed as high as 45. That change is indicative of a widespread issue in rural Japan; the majority of young adults leave their home communities to seek opportunities in more urban parts of the country, leaving behind an aging population and a falling number of new children.

Foster said that problem has been present since before 1963, when in an effort to preserve the ritual despite loss of population and bring new income into the region, communities in Akita Prefecture came together to organize the Namahage Sedo Matsuri, a festival that recreates the ritual for tourists each year. In an effort to share the tradition without altering its significance, the community elected to hold the festival in February rather than at New Year’s and to design new masks in which to perform it.

Since the inauguration of the festival, the Namahage spirits have become representatives of Akita Prefecture, their images synonymous with that region. Tourism has also become an important part of the local economy.

In 2009, the Toshidon ritual was added to a list of traditions recognized by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Kagoshima residents were surprised, especially upon hearing that they could now expect some tourism for the ritual―deliberation emerged about the distinction between public and private, global and local, and “ours” and “theirs,” Foster said. He explained that while it’s now possible to view the ritual as a tourist under some regulations, the region’s remoteness means that “the upshot is this is never going to be a tourist draw.”

Still, what the introduction of tourism to such private traditions as the Namahage and Toshidon rituals means for rural communities facing cultural shifts is what Foster’s work aims to determine, and he admitted to the audience that he’s still working out the answer.

Michael Dylan Foster has been a friend of Dr. Susan W. Furukawa, Beloit College’s Assistant Professor of Modern Languages and Literature in Japanese and Moaut Junior Professor of International Studies, since they pursued Doctorates together at Stanford University two decades ago. He is now a Professor at the University of California, Davis in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and is the author of two books on monsters and the supernatural in Japanese folklore. On Fri, Dr. Furukawa introduced him as the “preeminent Japanese folklorist of the United States.”

Foster told the Round Table that he hoped the Beloit students who attended the lecture were able to connect the idea of intangible cultural heritage to their own lives, and that he hoped he had inspired others to consider the questions he’s still working to answer.

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