Japan from the inside out

From hot naked men to a cold snowy temple

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 18, 2008

IF THERE ARE PEOPLE ANYWHERE who are more blasé about the human body and less squeamish about the facts of life than the Japanese, I’ve yet to meet them.


That’s why it was so puzzling earlier this year when JR East—the train company serving Tokyo and the Kanto region—refused to display a poster in its stations publicizing a centuries-old Iwate festival with a photo of a shirtless, hairy-chested man shouting at the top of his lungs. JR East was afraid some people would become offended if they thought the images constituted “sexual harassment”.

More than a few Japanese, who grow up from the age of zero going to public baths with their parents and are aware that all sorts of rowdiness and revelry can go on at a traditional festival, were boggled by the news. Yet JR East held its ground. (Here’s my post from earlier this year, which includes a brief explanation of the festival and some links.)

The story resurfaced in the national media again today when the sponsors released the poster that will be used to publicize next year’s festival, which will be held in February. Fortunately, we also have a brief TV report from TBS that includes shots of last year’s offending poster, next year’s poster, and some of the wild and wooly behavior of the nearly naked men getting primitive while surrounded by flaming torches. A translation follows below.

The Somin Festival of the Kokuseki Buddhist temple of Oshu, Iwate, garnered nationwide attention this year due to controversy over a poster it used to advertise the event. Festival organizers have now released the poster for next year’s festival. Based on the theme of tranquility, it features a photograph of the temple during a snowstorm.

The festival is known for combining (nearly) naked men and fire rituals. JR East refused to hang last year’s poster because they thought the photograph of the naked upper body of a man giving a loud roar would cause discomfort to some. This touched off a national controversy.

Oshu alternates the themes of the poster every year from tranquility to dynamism. Officials say the change this year is nothing special.

Afterwords: JR East’s decision still mystifies me, as well as the Oshuites I saw interviewed on TV this evening. Anyone who would think this year’s poster was an example of sexual harassment needs to schedule an appointment with a competent psychologist. And stop subjecting the rest of the world to their personality quirks.

3 Responses to “From hot naked men to a cold snowy temple”

  1. Adamu said

    I think you were right to be unsettled at this odd scandal, but I don’t see this as an example of “western values on the march”.

    About a year ago was the height of what I would call the coming of age of Japanese viral marketing. This was only the first of a host of manufactured scandals that conveniently gave national coverage to a local interest. The biggest of these was Sento-kun, the creepy buddha-deer mascot that Nara selected to promote itself.

    My hunch is that this so-called protest by JR was completely phony and ended up promoting the festival more than if they had only posted vanilla posters on the trains. Just a thought.

  2. Bender said

    The “kotonakare” mindset of corporate/bureaucratic Japan mystifies me all the time. Any good translation of “kotonakare”?

  3. ampontan said

    Kotonakare: Chicken!

    The dictionary says peace-at-any-price, safety-first. Extremely risk-averse.

    Wait until you see the next post about the Imari festival. There are some people who are not kotonakare!

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