Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Japanese Fertility Festival Has A Prominent Guest Of Honor

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The “Good Morning!” shrine is the guest of honor at this Festival

Japanese Shinto rituals can at times be solemn affairs but at Tagata Shrine near Nagoya, it’s rather hard to keep a straight face when an enormous 13 foot (3 meter) long penis rolls by. The gargantuan member is the guest of honor at the Honen-sai festival which is held every spring in order to ensure a bountiful harvest. The Honen-sai is a fertility festival that has common roots with ancient fertility rituals from around the world.

Fertility festivals are or were world-wide phenomenons whose traditions go back thousands of years ago to the beginning of agriculture. Farming has always been a tricky business subject at times to the whims of fate in the shape of bad weather, hungry animals, and crop sickness. It’s no wonder that people in ancient times tried to win favor from the various invisible powers they beleived in to ensure fate would be kind to their agricultural endeavors.

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The Phallic Sword makes an apt appearance at the Honen-Sai Procession

Ancient societies tended to link human sexuality with fertility of the soil. Fertility deities generally oversaw the fertility of humans, livestock, and farmland all of which were necessary for the survival of a community. Due to this connection, male and female sexual organs were common objects in many fertility rituals around the world. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Ancient Egyptians used phallic symbols in their fertility festivals to represent the missing severed member of the god Osiris. Osiris had fallen victim to his evil brother, Set, who trapped and later dismembered Osiris’ body. The goddess Isis found the pieces and reassembled them. She could not find his private parts so she fashioned one for him.

Fertility festivals never sat well with the Judeo-Christian crowd. All these sexual overtones and phallic images popping up all over the place disturbed their conservatively-repressed mindset. Jewish prophets railed against the creeping encroachment of paganism and heathen sexuality in Ancient Israelite society. The Catholic Church on one hand stamped out such pagan cults but on the other tried a bit of appeasement to recruit converts. The Church in its earlier days allowed festival days to still be celebrated so long as they were in a Christian setting. This assimilation process allowed some pagan symbols like the Easter Bunny to survive.

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Before the Procession, traditional music is played

When Japan opened its border after two and half centuries of seclusion in the late 19th Century, a number of westerners swarmed into Japan to gawk and wonder at customs that they saw as bizarre and sometimes downright heathen. At that time In the Western world, particularly in the English-speaking parts, prudish Victorian morals held sway over people’s thoughts and emotions. It was the heyday of sexual repression where the rare sight of a woman’s bare ankle could cause a man to swoon in lustful agony.

Some of these Western visitors to Japan who suffered from stuffy Victorian-ethics were quite naturally taken aback by what they saw as the loose morals of Japanese society. Mixed bathing so horrified them that the Japanese segregated the bathhouses and they remain so to this day with some exceptions.

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An Uninhibited Young Girl Posing by the Phallus

One straightlaced visitor was Amy Wilson-Carmichael, a missionary who came to Japan in the 1890s with the lofty noble goal of converting the heathen Japanese to Christianity. One day she chanced upon one of the many local matsuri (festival) that take place ever so often throughout Japan. Today, visitors would count their blessings to have stumbled upon such a celebration. Ms. Wilson-Carmichael, however, did not feel so fortunate.

“…A burst of ‘ all kinds of music,’ Nebuchadnezzar’s orchestra in full swing, drowns our voices…Men and women in exchanged attire and gaudy colours flit past, and mingling with uncanny monster forms dance the wild Matsuri dance with abandonment inconceivable, every step a parody, every gesture a caricature. … Pale, expressionless faces are theirs, dead, vacant, joyless, their heavy half-shut eyes hardly glance at the revelry around them. We turn away heart-sick, for this is heathendom indeed.”

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A Very Graphically Detailed Banner

What Ms. Wilson-Carmichael encountered was a matsuri of common variety – no more decadent than any other local festival around the world. It’s quite obvious by her revulsion that she had never seen a matsuri the likes of the Honen-sai Festival. Her delicate mind no doubt would have snapped and her gentle soul would have gone on to meet her Maker after suffering a massive aneurysm from seeing an enormous phallus paraded past her.

Tagata Shrine’s principal deity is not the male organ but is actually a female, Tamahime-no-mikoto. She was once a daughter of a powerful lord living in the area during Japan’s Kofun Period (300-600AD). Her husband, Takeinadane, was a local prince but he died at an early age fighting in some far off place. The Honen-sai Procession represents a reunion of these two sundered spirits which in turn brings about good blessings for the harvest.

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The Two Deities are Re-united through the Honen-Sai Procession

The Procession begins at Shinmei Shrine in the afternoon. Leading the way is a herald who purifies the path by tossing handfuls of salt. This is similar to the way Sumo wrestlers use salt to purify the ring before entering. Following behind comes a large banner emblazoned with a painted phallus uncomfortably complete for some viewers with hair and veins. After the banner comes two small trees known as sakaki. Pink paper amulets hang from their branches given them the appearance of cherry blossoms. In the past, people used to rip these trees apart at the end of the festival in their eagerness to gain spiritual insurance from disaster while also guaranteeing the fertility of their fields.

Next comes the mikoshi – or portable shrine – of the visiting male deity: Takeinadane-no-mikoto. This symbolic reunion with his former love is an age-old theme that can be found throughout the world in ancient societies. One of the earliest accounts comes from Ancient Mesopotamia, where the god Tammuz died and was sent to the underworld. His lover Ishtar could not live without him and struck a deal with the Guardian of the underworld to allow Tammuz return to the world for a period of time each spring. Thus the returning male god represents the rebirth of life that comes with spring after the death that is winter.

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A Herald purifies the Procession path tossing handfuls of salt

After the male deity comes his enormously exaggerated pride and joy. The large phallus is carved every year from a single cypress tree. The tree is selected and felled in mid-winter then taken to the shrine for purification rituals. Using only traditional tools, the phallus is slowly carved into being. After the festival, the phallus will reside the rest of the year at nearby Shinmei Shrine until it is time to carve the next phallus.

When the large phallus passed by young men would smirk, old women would sigh, young women would blush, and old men would cry. Free sake was handed out to help those of a more prudish nature overcome their shock.

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Unlucky Woman carry Phallus for Good Luck

Following the phallus, comes a group of women all of them 36 years of age who cradle a twenty inch (sixty centimeter) wooden phallus in their arms like it were a baby. 36 is traditionally thought to be an unlucky age for women so the women gain protection as well as energy by carrying these phallus-es. Their revitalized energies in turn help to stimulate the energy of the male deity.

Behind the unlucky ladies comes a group of men carrying yet another phallic symbol that stands upright on long thin board. They sing old laborers’ songs with scarcely concealed sexual overtones.

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Dirty Old Geezers croon a dirty ditty

With all these abounding phallus-es one could easily make the mistaken assumption that it is the male organ which is worshiped at the Honen-sai. This is a common misconception with fertility festivals in general. It is the living-giving energies of the earth which is celebrated. Despite its size and popularity, the Honen-sai Phallus would be physically and spiritually impotent without these energies. Fertility festivals are/were in the minds of the participants a form of energy transference and revitalization. The participants, the fertility symbols, the fertility deities, and the earth share and transfer energy back and forth, each revitalizing the other in a mutually beneficial way.

The image of these ancient fertility festivals have been marred primarily by Judeo-Christians who viewed them as examples of decadent paganism. Today certain elements of modern society in its giggly adolescent attitude towards sex see ancient participants in these festivals as little more than hedonistic swingers. It is true that human sexuality and sexual practices were mixed in with fertility customs but this was ritualized. These ancient societies instinctively knew that sex was important to life. Ancient people, despite being superstitious to the point of sacrificing a fellow or two whenever the rains didn’t come down, seem to have been more mature at least in their attitude towards sex than many so-called modernly-enlightened people today.

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Some serious size overcompensation is going on here

February 8, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, entertainment, fertility, festival, folklore, japan, mythology, sexuality, Shinto, spring, travel | 11 Comments