On the afternoon of April 7, the grounds of Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo, were packed out with people who had come to attend one of Japan’s most unconventional festivals: the Kanamara Matsuri (Festival of the Steel Phallus), a Shinto celebration that revolves around the parading and venerating of a large phallus. Pictures from last year’s event can be seen here.
People queued up to pose for photos next to a large pink phallic statue, ate penis-shaped candy and dressed in comical costumes, wearing glasses with said organ protruding from the nose. Vendors sold sticks of grilled food and cold drinks (alcohol prime among them), while thousands of spectators slowly made their way around the shrine to see what all the fuss was about.
The highlight is the parading of a large black phallus on a mikoshi (wooden float), as Shinto priests play traditional Japanese music (drums, flutes) in the background.
The overall atmosphere is light and lively, and has become a hit among foreign tourists. If anything, the event was so crowded that people were lucky just to make it from the street to the shrine, underlining the festival’s popularity as a quirky “alternative festival” among travelers and expats in Japan.
“I’d never even heard of the festival before my foreign friend told me about it,” said Marie, a female attendee in her late 20s. “Many Japanese don’t even know it exists.”
This could be due to history. During the Edo period, Kawasaki was one of the final stops along the Tokaido en route to Edo (now Tokyo), where merchants would stop at the city’s tea houses, which doubled as brothels. According to a salacious legend, which can be read about here, the prostitutes visited Kanayama Shrine to pray for protection against venereal diseases (framed as demons).
Over time, other people began to frequent the shrine to pray for fertility and abundance. Similar festivals sprouted up across Japan, geared towards conception and a good harvest.
While all of this is lighthearted, healthy – albeit very quirky – fun for Japanese and tourists today, there is an underlying irony and more serious message to note. As the festivities move along, it would appear that many Japanese remain blissfully unaware of the nation’s own impending crisis, which is closely linked to the original intent of the festival.
Put bluntly, Japan desperately needs its people to make some babies. Seiko Noda, a legislator from Japan’s house of representatives since 1993, even called for Japan to ban abortion in the Asahi Shimbun this February, according to the Washington Post. Given Japan’s abysmally low birthrate and looming demographic disaster, maybe now is a good time to reconnect with its fertility festivals.