”Matagi are a group of traditional hunters in northern Japan. The etymology of the term is uncertain, but it may derive from words meaning “stronger than demons” or “straddling mountains.” Out of fear of the mountain gods, matagi use a special language when they enter the mountains so as not to pollute the hunting grounds with the “dirt” of everyday life. For example, “bear,” which is called kuma in standard Japanese, is itazu. Sake is called kiyokawa. In old times, they used bow and arrow, or spears. Matchlock guns were introduced in the Edo period, then Murata rifles in the Meiji era, and now they have modern rifles. According to legend, the first matagi were the brothers Banji and Banzaburo, who were famous for their archery skills. In a dispute between the goddess of Mount Nikko and the god of Mount Akagi, Banzaburo helped the goddess by shooting out the eye of the Akagi god, who was incarnated as a giant serpent (or a giant centipede in some versions of the story). In return for his meritorious deed, the goddess gave him a scroll granting him the right to hunt in all mountains of the land.
There are two legends about the origin of matagi, the Heike version and the Genji version. At the battle of Dannoura, which was the final clash in the war between the Heike (Taira) and Genji (Fujiwara) clans, the Heike were defeated and ran away. A group of between 500 and 1000 Heike men made their way to Iida in the Shinshu region and settled there. Later, one group migrated towards Niigata, and another group went towards Nikko. Around 300 are said to have arrived in Nikko. Some then proceeded further north, and eventually a group of 18 men ended up here in Ani in Akita, the story goes. This was around the year 1650, almost 400 years ago, and ever since that time Ani has been known as the home of the matagi. The Heike version appears to be the stronger of the two, but there are also many people in the Ani villages who claim descent from the Genji, so the Genji version can’t be ruled out either.
Matagi are divided into two factions, the Nikko faction and the Koya faction. The men who came to Ani belonged to the Nikko faction. The Nikko faction is further subdivided into three branches: Aoba, Kodama and Shigeno. We are the inheritors of the Shigeno branch. According to the folkloric tradition, the skilled archer Banzaburo, who had helped the goddess of Mount Nikko defeat the god of Mount Akagi, received a scroll granting him the right to hunt in all mountains of Japan in perpetuity. Every leader of a matagi group has a handwritten copy of that document, that is handed down through the generations. Every time it is copied, however, the newly elected leader adds a few thoughts of his own, so I suspect it has changed gradually from the original. I also have a copy of that scroll at home, as well as an altar dedicated to the deity of the matagi, a mountain goddess. She is said to be very ugly and jealous, and only appreciates things even uglier than herself, so the tradition is to present her with a stonefish.
Currently, there are 44 matagi in Ani, but when I first started we were around 200, and in the old days they were many more. Since they had to share narrow hunting grounds, there were so-called travelling matagi as well. By the beginning of the 20th century, they were journeying considerable distances to barter their prey, and people in many places helped them out. There are matagi in Nagano and other regions as well, but they appear to have learnt the skills from the matagi of Ani for hunting alone, in groups of 2 or 3, in groups of 5 to 10, or in larger groups, and the traditional traps and hunting gear.“
”The Validity of One Universal Genealogical Myth …. Similarly, all the Japanese families of the Genji lineage include emperor Seiwa of ninth century as the most illustrious ancestor in their genealogies, whereas another emperor, Kanmu of eighth century, plays the same role in the genealogical trees of those belonging to the Heike lineage. Such a genealogical claim has traditionally been dismissed outright as an absurd fantasy borne of a wishful delusion. Quite to the contrary, this study reveals that unlike the Ne of population genetics, the number of ancestors at the AN SA generation was very large, probably numbering in the millions, and the ancestors of the AN SA and all generations previous to the AN SA included all the progeny-produced adults of the entire ancestral population. It follows that among them had to be all the local kings of the times. Not to be forgotten, however, are other ancestors of the times, for also included in the ancestry were murderers, thieves, embezzlers, prostitutes, and all other social misfits of the times.”
DNA testing by matagi hunters would in future resolve the mystery of their origins.