Matsuri da! (15): Sex as sacrament at a Japanese festival
Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 17, 2007
YESTERDAY, reader Shingen discovered an older post of mine on another site about a Japanese festival in which the participants pantomime the sex act. He liked it so much it gave me the idea to offer it as an encore presentation. And so, here it is.
Herodotus once observed that “All is custom.” As an example of what he meant, it is explained that it is as contrary to custom in Paupua to bury one’s dead as it is in California to eat them.
There is no better illustration than religious ceremonies. We’ve pointed out here before that more than a few local Shinto festivals in Japan celebrate the brewing and consuming of sake, all done with the blessing of the priests at the Shinto shrine. Try to imagine that happening at the standard brand religious institutions elsewhere in the world.
But even the indulgent and broad-minded who would overlook a boozy night at a religious festival might be nonplussed if they saw some of the practices that occur at a few Shinto festivals in Japan.
One example is the Asuka Onda Festival, held the first Sunday in February every year at the Asukaniimasu Shrine in Asuka-mura, Nara Prefecture. The reason you’ll never read about this festival in a newspaper is that the central event is the simulated performance of the sex act on stage in front of an audience.
This is one of the oldest Shinto festivals in Japan. There are written records mentioning the festival during the reign of the Emperor Temmu, which lasted from 673 to 686, and it likely predated that.
Three masked mythological characters appear in the performance. The first is the Tengu (first photo), half-man and half-bird, with a large, phallic nose. The Tengu have represented both harmful and helpful characters over the years, some kidnapping children or tormenting Buddhist priests, while others helped people. Legend has it they taught swordsmanship to the samurai.
The second is the female Otafuku (second photo). In ancient mythology, Otafuku’s dance brought out the sun and brightened dark skies. The character suggests health and good humor. Finally, the Okina (third photo) is an old man who has risen above life’s struggles to attain lasting fulfillment.
In this particular performance, Tengu and Otafuku are husband and wife. This festival was originally performed on the lunar New Year, which in Japan was considered the first day of spring. The connections with fertility and new growth are apparent, and the ancient Japanese believed that sexual energy has the power to disperse evil spirits and bad influences.
The performance begins early in the morning with the appearance of the Tengu and Okina in the road. They begin chasing people, whacking some on the butt at random with bamboo sticks. No one gets upset; the act symbolizes the driving away of evil spirits and arousing the spirit of life after a long winter. It is a harbinger of spring, and legend has it that the greater the commotion they cause, the better that year’s harvest will be.
After the Tengu and Okina withdraw, the sound of taiko drums signals the start of a more solemn part of the ceremony, as the Shinto priests offer food to the deities. When the ceremony is concluded, the Tengu and the Okina return, leading a man dressed in a cow costume walking on all fours. They mime the plowing of a rice paddy on a platform in front of one of the shrine buildings. Their performance at this point combines shrieks of fright and laughter, as they purposely slip and fall from the platform and then begin to dance with the onlookers, hamming it up through their part of the show.
The three characters depart again, and a second taiko drum signal announces the return of the priests, who perform a service representing the planting of the rice paddies. They place pine branches upright into the earth on the platform. When this ceremony is completed, they throw the branches at the audience members below, who scramble to grab them. (And when I say scramble, I mean it–no one who has seen Japanese behavior at events such as these would still think they were the world’s politest people. You either go for the branch or get out of the way fast.) The lucky one who come away with branches place them in their own rice paddies because they are said to drive away harmful insects.
A third taiko drum signal announces the return of Tengu and Okina with the Otafuku character (played by a young man). Otafuku is wearing a red cloth around her hips, which she flicks suggestively as she shakes her body in the throes of passion. The excitement is contagious and is soon conveyed to the crowd, who encourage her to greater heights. The Tengu grabs her by the shoulders and they simulate sex standing up; he still has a bamboo stick in one hand, and he swings it at anyone in the audience impertinent enough to laugh.
The Okina then presides at their mock wedding ceremony. (It seems that preserving virginity for marriage was not an important tradition in Japan.) After offering large bowls of rice to the Shinto priests, the Tengu quietly takes out a bamboo tube and places it in his crotch (fourth photo). After teasing the priest with this phallic symbol by flashing it around his nose, the Tengu opens the tube and pours out sake. (They don’t miss a trick, do they?) He places the tube back in his crotch and waves it at the audience.
Otafuku then lies down on the stage and the Tengu mounts her to perform another extremely realistic simulation of sex. First-time viewers are reportedly stunned into silence at this point, but after a while start laughing and cheering on the performers. Meanwhile, Okina hovers around the couple playing the comedian and generally acting goofy.
When Tengu and Otaku finish, they take out pieces of paper from their costumes, pantomime wiping their crotches, and throw the paper at the crowd. (Bet you thought they couldn’t top themselves, eh?) They repeat this several times, and the people in the audience again scramble for the paper; legend has it that if they use the paper that night themselves, they will conceive a child.
Japanese scholars report that despite the frank behavior of the performers, the performance itself is not lewd, but rather innocent and even healthful in its own way. They note that the ancients thought sex was neither embarrassing nor something to be hidden; on the contrary they respected the tremendous energy of the sex drive and thought it led to peace and prosperity. In fact, they characterize the ceremony as being a kind of prayer.
They may have a point. Imagine what the rest of the world would be like if ceremonies such as this were held annually at churches, temples, and mosques. I’d almost consider converting to Shintoism, if such a thing were possible!
YouTube notes: Here is a clip with a brief section showing the crucial part in the second half, albeit poorly filmed from a blocked perspective. The people who put it together unfortunately botched it. For some silly reason, they call it part of a Gaijin Guide. They’ve also added several unnecessary English captions, and they’ve caught the cameraman’s sniggers on the audio portion throughout. I suspect they didn’t understand a lot of what they were seeing. This has a short clip of the butt whacking, and this is a six-minute plus taiko performance at the same festival.