The Festival We Missed While Freaking Out About Banned Penises

Apr 18, 2013 • Culture

Kanamara Matsuri, Festival Of the Steel Phallus in Japan

While we were raising hell about Facebook’s censoring of Scientific American after the magazine posted a link featuring computer-generated images of the human penis on its profile, Japan was celebrating Kanamara Matsuri, a Shinto phallika (or celebration of the penis) in Kawasaki, a city between Tokyo and Yokohama.

Unlike some belief systems, which seem to be terrified of genitals, the importance of sex is not ignored in Shinto. The Kanamara Matsuri (or Steel Penis Festival) is an annual celebration and it’s no accident that it coincides with the blooming of the cherry blossom, as its origins have everything to do with the things we associate with spring: sex and fertility.

A myth underlies the festival’s tradition: a steel penis was first created by a craftsman to help rid a young woman of a demon which had possessed her vagina, injuring any man who tried to enter it. The steel phallus destroyed the demon’s teeth ridding the woman of her troubles; consequently, it became an object of veneration.

The earliest records relating to this particular celebration date to the 1600s, when sex workers came to the local shrine in Kawasaki to gain divine favor — prosperity for their business and protection from sexually transmitted illness. Today, the festival continues to celebrate fertility and promote healthy sexual relations — as well as prosperity in business. Almost everything present during the celebration is shaped like a penis — from sweets to candles — and most proceeds from the festival are put forth to fund HIV research.

At 2camels, Steve Grove writes about his experience at the festival. Here’s an excerpt (because you really should click and read the whole thing):

There, in a wooden case with two swinging doors, is a life-size brass model of a vagina, centered between the stumps of two spreading legs. A few questions to the yellow-jacketed official, and I find out this small shrine’s meaning; for five hundred yen ($5.10), you can buy a tiny golden penis charm from the shop downstairs, and rub it on the vagina shrine for good fertility luck. I stand for a moment, admiring the artistic merit of the brass image. Soon a middle-aged Japanese man with glasses and a small backpack walks into the room and kneels down in front of the sacred shrine. Nervously, he removes his penis charm from its white wrapping. Closing his eyes and mumbling a prayer, he begins to rub the gold phallus in a circular motion around the opening of the brass vagina.

Suddenly, disaster strikes. Wrapped up in the religious fervor of the moment, he accidentally drops the charm into the opening. Shaking with a start, he opens his eyes and peers into the hole, horrified. He tries to get the charm out, but it seems to be stuck too far in. His pinky, a pencil, nothing seems to work. Behind foggy glasses, the man furtively glances around the room, looking for help. Soon the man in the yellow jacket comes over. He is obviously amused. Beads of sweat form on the brow of the kneeling man, who pulls on his disheveled hair in agony. Desperate, he grabs the brass vagina by its spreading leg stumps and shakes it. The museum official’s smile disappears, and he pulls the brass image away, calling over a few other officials to “check out” the situation.

Soon, a short, older woman who seems to be in charge enters the small museum. One look in the vagina and she becomes enraged. “You’re not supposed to put it INSIDE!” she scolds the man. Secretly, I can’t help but wonder how the man is ever going to have kids if he does otherwise.

Header image by Josh Hawley.