The Independent’s Selena Hoy was in Tokyo-adjacent Kawasaki to witness a festive religious celebration known as Kanamara Matsuri, which means “Festival of the Steel Phallus.” You might just know it as the penis festival.
Hoy offers a look at her experience and explains that things are far more nuanced than the chuckles that come when you say penis festival, so stop chuckling.
Hoy writes, “The Kanamara Matsuri is often presented to outsiders as yet another face of ‘quirky Japan,’ but in fact, it’s a serious religious affair, linked to Japan’s nature-worshipping Shinto religion.”
This is, after all, the country that boasts animal cafes, nap cafés and ball-pit bars. It’s the kind of nation that you might expect to conjure something like a penis festival.
But the festival, while certainly ebullient and joyful, is rooted in religious ceremony.
That’s not to say that the celebration isn’t peppered with as many penises as a male strip club. Because Hoy and other publications highlight a parade that is resplendent with the male grandeur, albeit in pink, lollipop and statue form.
The Huffington Post, while also posting images of the event, explains that the festival has become about more than fertility. It explains the event now promotes safe sex and also raises money for HIV prevention.
Atlas Obscura dates the origin of the festival to about the 17th century when a syphilis outbreak possibly had sex workers praying for a cure.
Hoy explains that whenever Kanamara Matsuri originated, it had a long absence from the culture until 1970 when priest Hirohiko Nakamura brought it back on the scene. After a major Japanese personality embraced the festival a few years ago, it became a national sensation boasting 50,000 visitors a year.
Hoy goes on to explain the specifics of the parade, which features three major mikoshi, or Shinto shrines.
Each have their own special characteristics in this peculiar fertility parade: “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.”
By the time the third shows up, the party has really started. Hoy states that this particular shrine is brought down the road by cross-dressers Elizabeth Kaikan, saying also that the group is, “decked out in bright makeup and colorful wigs as they jiggle the mikoshi in the air, pouting and preening for the cameras.”
The Independent also quotes former parade priestess Kimiko Nakamura who explains: “Officials who handle human rights from City Hall have come to the festival and handed out pamphlets, promoting this festival as a LGBT-positive, non-discriminatory event. This event has deep, wide roots in that kind of thinking, and we don’t want anybody to take it another way. We consider that there should be no discrimination against anybody, including LGBT people. Anybody should be able to come to this festival and enjoy it.”
So a festival that may have had its roots in STD prevention meandered into a fertility celebration and has now turned into a carnival of acceptance.
In many ways, then, the Kanamara Matsuri has arrived just in time.