JAPAN ‘PENIS FESTIVAL’: RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL HISTORY BEHIND THE NOW NOTORIOUS EVENT

Heads Turn As Thousands Attend Japan’s Infamous Penis Festival

If any country has a reputation for modesty and manners, it’s Japan. The Japanese are polite, never late and constantly bowing, goes the usual narrative – and there’s certainly truth in that. But the reality is a little more complicated – and that complexity is on full view at one of the country’s most outlandish religious festivals, the Kanamara Matsuri, or “Festival of the Steel Phallus”, held annually in Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo.

It’s the first Sunday in April, and I’m in Kawasaki’s Daishi neighbourhood, surrounded by penises of all colours and sizes. Normally the streets here are sleepy – just three days ago, only a few lonely pedestrians were walking the alleys – but today there’s a scrum of people shouting, laughing and chanting, pushing and shoving as they jockey for position. They’re all trying to get a glimpse of the massive penis mikoshi, or portable shrines, being paraded through the town. Each mikoshi is carried by dozens of locals outfitted in happi coats and sweatbands, while some of the men are in fundoshi, loincloth-style underwear.

It’s organised by the priests of Kanayama Jinja, a ‘sub-shrine’ of the larger Wakamiya Hachimangu that, the rest of the year, is populated almost exclusively by locals. For centuries, Kanayama has been a place where couples pray for fertility and marital harmony; during the Edo era, from the 17th to 19th centuries, sex workers would come and pray to be rid of the STIs that they picked up in the course of the job. There was even a festival revolving around fertility and sexual health during those times – but the tradition was lost in the late 1800s. In the 1970s, then-chief priest Hirohiko Nakamura decided to resurrect it.

The Japanese aren’t exactly known for broadcasting their sex lives and until recently, the Kanamara Matsuri mostly attracted a smattering of overseas visitors. But five years ago everything changed when it was name-checked by Matsuko Deluxe, a Japanese TV personality known for his cross-dressing and pro-sexuality views. The festival quickly gained domestic followers – today it attracts around 50,000 visitors.

The parade consists of three mikoshi, each containing an enormous disembodied phallus. The first – ramrod straight and made of shiny black metal – is carried by a troupe of whistling and chanting shrine-bearers, careering from side to side down the street as festivalgoers jump out of the way. The second is an old wooden model, ancient and gnarled.

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