One more unique experience gained this weekend: Kanamara Matsuri, or the Phallus festival.
This festival features, as you might expect, the display of numerous giant phalluses, penis-shaped snacks and a mikoshi (portable-shrine) parade which includes the distinctive pink ‘Elizabeth Mikoshi’ which was donated by a drag queen club in Tokyo called “Elizabeth Kaikan”(here they are carrying out a Shinto ritual in order to “transfer” the Gods from the shrine to the portable one to be carried through the streets, and to bless/purify it).
Outside the procession, vendors and stores were selling phallic-shaped candies and goods. The prices were ridiculous, but that didn’t stop people (including me) from buying and licking overpriced, penis and vagina-shaped lollipops.
Along with food and drink vendors like any typical Japanese festival, there are also stalls selling penis-themed souvenirs including key chains, trinkets, pens, toys, etc. And if you’re wondering whether to open your wallet, all the proceeds from items sold go to AIDS research.
So you’re probably wondering why the Japanese celebrate phallus.
One legend tells the story of the goddess Izanami no Mikoto who suffered significant injuries after birthing a fire god. Gods of mining and blacksmiths, Kanayamahiko-no-Kami and Kanayamahime-no-Kami, helped heal her. Because of this, many pray to these gods for protection from venereal diseases and birth complications.
Another tale involves a woman who had a demon living in her vagina. This legend said that sometime back in the Edo period (1603-1867), there was a sharp-toothed demon who fell in love with a beautiful woman. The woman, however, didn’t return the demon’s affection and decided to marry another man. Angering the demon, he inhabited the woman’s vagina before their wedding night and when they tried to consummate the marriage, the demon bit off the groom’s penis with his razor-sharp teeth. When the woman remarried, the jealous demon once again made his feelings clear by biting off her second husband’s penis. Deciding that enough was enough, the upset villagers concocted a plan to trick the demon. A local blacksmith forged a steel phallus and upon its insertion, the demon’s teeth were broken and he left the woman’s vagina for good.
Beyond the myths, there’s also a historical reason behind the prayers for protection and happiness at Kanayama. The city of Kawasaki (where the shrine is located) was a stop for those who traveled along the Tokaido Road between Edo (today Tokyo) and cities in western parts of Japan. As a “pit stop” for travelers on the Tokaido, Kawasaki had “tea houses” that not only served as a rest stop for food and drink, but also as brothels where travelers could buy time with prostitutes. These prostitutes often visited the Kanayama Shrine as a way to pray for protection against venereal diseases, and it is said that they established the celebration of health and fertility at the Kanamara Matsuri.
In the past, the Kanamara Matsuri served something of a divine purpose for the locals, prostitutes, and visitors that paid their respects to the gods. In doing so, they prayed for conception, safe childbirth, protection from diseases, and the general happiness and welfare of the family. Today, it seems that this festival became actually a mere, commercialized tourist attraction and seems to have lost its original, historical purpose. But on the other hand, it’s hard to simply reject the festival completely when it promotes certain positive factors.
In addition, the lost focus on fertility is ironic given Japan’s declining birthrate. Fertility has been a critical social issue for Japan which has not seen improvement, nor efforts and calls for better child-rearing environments and policies enabling women to work while raising a family.