BY: DANIEL KORN
A lot of Western folks find the sexual predilections of Japan a bit odd. Tentacles, maid cafes, a tendency towards animated women who look like sexualized children, and the ever-mythologized (and apparently true) used-panty machine paint a picture of an esoteric sexual culture that is alienating to the comparatively milquetoast tastes of us in the West. A lot of people attribute this to a work-minded national attitude that has resulted in a sexually-repressed culture.
Enter Kanamara Matsuri—translated to “Festival of the Steel Phallus.” Held in Kawasaki, Japan on the first Sunday of every April, the festival celebrates prosperity and fertility by parading around three giant metal wangs—called “Mikoshi”—and selling various penis-shaped goodies, including candles, carved vegetables, popsicles, and masks. In recent years, the festival has also become a fundraiser for HIV research. This all happens around the Kanayama Shrine, which reveres the penis and was a popular spot for prostitutes to pray for protection from STIs.
If you’re wondering how a giant penis gets to be a venerated religious object, it’s based on a folk tale that goes something like this (and a slight warning here for those that are squeamish when it comes to their delicate bits): an evil demon decides to possess a woman’s vagina, causing it to grow teeth. No actual reason is given for this, other than the demon being a huge asshole.
Anyways, the woman gets married, and when her husband tries to consummate the marriage on their wedding, the demon bites his dick off. The woman eventually meets a new man, they get married, he tries his hand at sex and is again punished with a stump where his sexual organ used to be. The woman, understandably distraught, decides to go to the town blacksmith for help—I suppose because blacksmiths make weapons and those are generally good for demon killing. His solution is to make a steel penis to de-tooth the demon. It works—when he plunges the steel in, the demon bites down, shatters his teeth, and flees, leaving the woman to live her life as normally as possible given the probably-psychologically-damaging circumstances.
It’s a bit of a grisly story, and with its imagery of demonic vaginas being “fixed” by the cold, hard power of a cock, perhaps not the most feminist. But it’s a surprisingly uncontroversial festival, doubly so considering the supposed repression of the citizens involved. It’s family-oriented, with kids encouraged to join in the festivities with their parents and a kitschy vibe. Men carry the Mikoshi in drag, giant phalluses that can be sat on or posed with litter the festival grounds, and people walk around with joke glasses that have had the traditional nose-and-moustache combo swapped with the top half of a droopy dong.
It’s even more surprising when you consider that this is a religious festival, based in Japan’s extremely common Shinto religion. Can you imagine devout Christians, Jews, or Muslims all having a collective laugh over the idea of sex? Treating it not like a shameful thing to keep hidden from your peers but a healthy, important, positive part of everyday life?
I can’t, but maybe we’d all be better off if they could.