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Kanamara Matsuri: The Japanese Penis Festival and Its Long Queer History

Content warning: mythologised body violence, mention of AIDS

Taking place TODAY is the kanamara matsuri (‘the festival of the steel phallus’). Every year, in the throes of cherry-blossom season, over 30,000 people flock to Kawasaki, Tokyo for the religious festival, which consists of three phallic floats (‘mikoshi’) being paraded around the nearby residential area. If you’ve ever met me at a party, I’ve probably brought up this story, and not without reason - the long history behind this festival is fascinating, and very, very queer. Described as a “major event in the LGBT+ social calendar”, this festival is a beautiful celebration of queer visibility in a largely conservative society. 

(ID: Anna and the steel phallus at Kanayama Shrine, photographed by Miranda (friend)).

The mythos that surrounds the kanamara matsuri includes it’s origin story as to why a steel phallus is so central to the festivities. It begins with a woman, who was possessed by a ‘demon’ living in her vagina, and her partner. Every time the couple tried to have sex, the demon would bite the man’s penis, causing him pain, and in some tales, even the castration of her many partners. Frustrated, she went to their local priest in Kawasaki, who provided her with a blessed steel phallus to use, which then broke the demon’s teeth. Using this metal dildo, she was cured. What I love most about this tale, is that it is a mythologised explanation for what we now know today to be vaginismus, with a similar method of treatment, articulated in the language of the time (early 15th century).

(ID: A blacksmith working at the temple, photographed by Anna).

In another story, the Shinto goddess of creation, Izanami no Mikoto, gave birth to fire which caused her reproductive organs to hurt immensely, but was healed by two blacksmith gods. 

Ever since its origin, the Kanayama Shrine (pictured below), has therefore been dedicated to Kanayamahiko and Kanayamahime, the male and female blacksmith deities, which also explains its popularity among metalworkers in Japan, who have their own festival at the shrine at the beginning of November. At the shrine itself, there is a large steel penis that you can rub for good luck (pictured left), and a workshop for blacksmiths in the building. Embracing it’s importance in the history of sexuality, the shrine has its own repository of texts about sexuality, from Japan, Europe and India, which are often displayed during the festival. 

A history of this shrine can be traced back to the Edo period (1603-1868), where female sex workers would come to here to pray against contracting STDs, a practice which continues at the shrine even today. This has founded the ethos of the shrine, which wanted their annual festival be for everyone to celebrate in the daylight, without shame

(ID: A shinto ritual takes place at Kanayama Shrine during the Kanamara Matsuri, photographed by Anna)

In the 1980s, people began coming to the shrine to pray against the contraction of AIDS, and the festival now raises money for HIV research. In order to fundraise as much as possible, the festival is a delightful explosion of merchandise, from penis-shaped pottery to phallic candles, from festival hats to penis-themed food (all pictured below).

ID: Penis pottery by Ryota Aoki Pottery, an array of phallic candles on sale at the festival, both photographed by Anna

ID: kanamara matsuri merchandise, photographed by Anna

ID: Chocolate covered bananas with marshmallows, photographed by Holly

Every year, the highlight of the festival is the ‘Elizabeth float’, the iconic giant pink penis that is organised and carried by drag queens and transgender women, providing a rare opportunity for visibility for Tokyo’s drag scene and transgender population. The float is named after the Elizabeth Kaikan (‘Elizabeth club’) in cross-dressing club in Tokyo, who donated the float in the 1970s, when the festival restarted. She used to only be carried by drag queens, but now the rules have relaxed a little to stipulate that the carriers must dress as an opposite gender. As the drag queens who carry the float have aged, the float is sometimes placed on wheels.

(ID: The Elizabeth float is carried by drag queens and transgender women, photographed by Anna)

The festival is important because, while Japan has a long queer history, it is often hidden and repressed by conservative government of the country. To this day, same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan, although Japan is making progression with transgender rights. The Kanamara Matsuri represents queer and female voices that have been erased throughout history, and through celebration of genderqueer identities, stays true to its history by raising money for HIV research, in order to help those with STDs as the shrine as always done.

By Anna Pilgrim (she/her)

(ID: Anna and a friend pose with a drag queen at the festival, photographed by Imi)

Dedicated to Noah, who says this is “the greatest pro sex toy legend ever”.



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