Phallic worship: the “Kanamara festival” at the Kanayama Shrine

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Phallic worship is a phenomenon that has been common around the world since ancient times. In many regions, however, it has long been relegated to obscurity. Christianity had this effect on phallic worship in European countries.

However, there is still a place in Japan where phallic worship is an established activity. This is the Kawasaki neighborhood in the city of Kawasaki, in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The neighborhood is home to Kanayama Shrine, where a statue of a penis is enshrined as an object of worship. The shrine’s roots can be traced back to fairly recent times and is thought to have been established in the 17th century.

Every year in April, the “Kanamara Festival” is held in this shrine. This festival is often described as one of Japan’s more bizarre events, but it is quite popular and always draws large crowds. The Kanamaru Festival has grown especially large in recent years, as it became an object of fascination for people outside of Japan.

Japanese myths and phallic worship

Kanayama Shrine links its phallic worship to Japanese mythology.

According to Japanese mythology, the goddess Izanami once gave birth to a god named Kagutsuchi. However, Kagutsuchi emerged into the world with his entire body wreathed in flame. Izanami’s genitals were badly burned, which would eventually result in her death and disappearance into the underworld.

It is said that while Izanami was suffering from the burns to her lower body, she was nursed by a god called Kanayama Hikonokami and a goddess called Kanayama Himenokami. These two are venerated in Kanayama Shrine today.

That is why the shrine has attracted many devotees who believe it can help them with problems related to birth and venereal diseases.

The flourishing town of Kawasaki-juku

The roots of Kanayama Shrine lie in the Edo period. At the time, there was a post town called Kawasaki-juku in the area of present-day Kawasaki. A “post town” was a settlement along a highway where travelers could rest and recuperate. Because these post towns were located in areas that saw heavy traffic, they were often highly prosperous.

When a post town began to grow, it also attracted unlicensed prostitutes who came to soothe weary travelers’ exhaustion. The shogunate that held power at the time actually forbade prostitution outside the boundaries of designated areas. However, unlicenced prostitutes were widely seen as essential to the dynamic atmosphere of the post towns.

The women became known as meshimori onna.

However, prostitution was not an easy line of work. This led the women to seek salvation not just in their work, but also from religion. The meshimori onna instigated a ceremony that came to be known as the Jibeta (literally “bare earth”) Festival.

The purpose of the ceremony was to pray that one remain free of venereal diseases and be prosperous in business. As time went by, this festival morphed into a form of belief centered on Kanayama Shrine.

The birth of the Kanamara Festival

Today, the Kanamara Festival is the most climactic of all events held at Kanayama Shrine. At this festival, a throng of people parades around the town with a portable shrine that includes a statue of a phallus, believed to be the seat of the gods that are venerated at Kanayama Shrine.

The festival actually did not take its current form until 1977, so the procession of the portable shrine does not go back all the way to the 17th century. However, because the present-day festival was conceived by the original association of Kanayama Shrine devotees, it is the spiritual successor of the meshimori onna’s historical worship activities.

Today, the shrine receives visitors from all over Japan who come to pray for a safe delivery or protection against and recovery from venereal diseases.

On top of that, the shrine also attracts many overseas tourists, who look absolutely delighted by the whole display. Many of them are from Christian areas where the idea of parading a phallus through the streets is downright unthinkable.

The phenomenon of phallic worship is actually rare in most of Japan as well. However, it continues in this one corner of the city of Kawasaki, which is very interesting indeed. Japanese mythology includes some rather sexually charged stories, and Kanayama Shrine is a good place to start learning more about those.