Text & video by Phoebe Amoroso, cover image courtesy of Kanamara Shrine
Our roving reporter, Pheebz, visited the annual Kanamara Festival on April 7th, which involves a lot of phalluses. The Kanamara Shrine (literally, “Metal Penis Shrine”) is where people pray for sexual health and fertility.
What’s the story behind this upstanding event? Watch the video below to peel back the mythological foreskin and get to the root of the matter.
The festival has its roots in local sex workers praying
for protection against sexually-transmitted infections, but in recent years, it
has come to represent LGBTQ and diversity with profits going towards HIV
Quite rightly, however, many have pointed out the hypocrisy inherent
in a country, which made international headlines for condemning vagina art by Megumi
Igarashi, better known as Rokudenashiko. Who was arrested on obscenity charges
for distributing 3D data of her vagina that she used to 3D print a vagina canoe
as part of her work.
Yet the obscenity of the flagrant double standards
provokes discussion, and an event that promotes inclusivity is worth
celebrating in a notoriously conservative society.
Many festival attendees are likely satisfied with pure spectatorship and sucking on phallic-shaped candy, and that’s fine too. But for maximum enjoyment, it’s worth digging a little deeper into the legend of a SAVAGE VAGINA DEMON (you read that right).
One legend has it that a beautiful woman was plagued by a jealous demon, who hid in her vagina and killed Husband Number 1 by biting off his penis. Husband Number 2 met a similar fate. Dismayed, she enlisted the help of a local blacksmith who seems to have been really chill about dealing with vagina demons. He made her a metal phallus, which she inserted. The demon, of course, bit it, but he broke his teeth and fled. Presumably she lived happily ever after, especially since she had her own personal metal phallus.
Coauthored by Brian Ashcraft, a senior contributing editor for the website Kotaku, and Osaka based tattoo artist Hori Benny, this book Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design was written with the goal with the intention of helping those that are thinking of getting a Japanese style tattoo (perhaps most commonly known outside of Japanese as irezumi・刺青). Both authors use extensive knowledge of Japanese style tattooing and personal interviews to guide the novice away from committing any cultural faux pas in a work that spans 158 glossy pages.
“Over the course of researching, interviewing, and writing this book, we
consulted numerous friends, colleagues, experts, and total strangers with the
goal of introducing and decoding the most prevalent motifs so that English
speakers can have a better understanding of their meaning and hopefully get
Japanese tattoos that can be worn with pride – as they should be”
The book begins with an introduction to
the history of irezumi in Japan, from punitive tattoos, to prohibition, and all
the way back to modern times. This first section also covers briefly some
reasons why Japanese tattoos have changed over time. The book is then divided
into six additional chapters based on the different styles and motifs found in
irezumi, with numerous sections in each chapter that clearly divide different
motifs in that style. A tattooist and client profile are also included at the
end of every chapter, giving life to the theme of that particular chapter. There
are also information boxes that provide additional information to support the
content within the main body of the work. All of this is supported with high
quality, full colour images of tattoos and virtually every single page of the
What I found extremely impressive about
this book was the sheer quantity and quality of the accompanying images. Not
only are specific motifs and their meanings clearly explained, but the authors
have also provided imagery and explanations of the images themselves. The
reader is able to enjoy each and every motif – usually in more than one style.
Both Ashcraft and Hori Benny did an exceptional job collecting the various
photographs of irezumi for the book.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of the book
though, was the addition of the Tattooist Profile and Tattoo Client Profile at
the end of every single chapter. While the majority of the book reads, to an
extent, like an irezumi dictionary of sorts, these sections brought extra life
into the vast amount of information being provided. We, as readers, are given
the opportunity to hear the voices of individuals that are not the authors.
These sections are personal and provide a real solid look into the minds of the
tattoo artists and their clients. We are able to see their views on irezumi and
what they mean to them personally. The extra insight brought in by these
sections is a crucial component in what makes Japanese Tattoos work – it makes the “foreign” content relatable.
That being said, the large amount of
information that the book contains is also a weakness. There were certain
sections that I found difficult to read. There are extra text bubbles of
information throughout the book, but in some places their existence takes away
from the overall flow of the work. The reader is obligated to both stop
midsentence to go read the “extras” or move on and hope they don’t forget to go
back and read them again. Such as,
“The fox (kitsune in Japanese) is associated with the formless Shinto deity Inari, who is sometimes depicted as male, other times as female and sometimes as gender-less. Inari is not only the god of rice, sake wine, and fertility, but also the god of metal workers and commerce. Stone fox statues often appear at the more than ten thousand officially recognized Inari shrines in Japan, and because the fox guards these shrines, the animal is often confused with the god. The pure white foxes, however, aren’t simply the god’s messengers, but also guard and protect the shrines. These foxes also carry connotations of wealth and fertility, due to Inari’s rice associations.” (pg. 57)
I found sections like this rather
disjointing and it did affect my reading experience. Definitely not a problem
for many readers, but something that I wish would have been laid out a little
better, especially considering the high quality of the content on every single
Overall, Japanese Tattoos was a fascinating read and I would recommend it enthusiastically to anyone interested in tattoos or keen to learn more about specifically about irezumi. While perhaps the academic might find the content a bit shallow in terms of the historical content, it is important to remember that that is NOT the goal that Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny set for this book. They wanted to create a resource for English speakers who wanted to get Japanese tattoos. A goal that I would say they accomplished with flourishing colours.
Taylor Drew is a new contributor to JSRC she is a Canadian living in Tokyo since 2015. (Almost) fluent in Japanese. Loves Iwate and cats.
Everyone knows there is a dark side to journalism. If they don’t, they just haven’t worked the job long enough. It’s even darker when you work for a Japanese newspaper that still has morning and evening editions. That means six deadlines a day, since each regional version has its own deadline. I don’t miss those days.
When you’re on the police beat, you essentially live within the police press club. There’s at least one 24-hour shift a week, in which you may or may not catch a couple hours of sleep between 2 and 5:30 a.m., when you have to check the papers to see if the team has been scooped and notify the boss and the reporter in charge of the division.
You’re never home. You’re never not on call. Most of us end up divorced or legally separated. You will not be able to avoid hounding the friends, families and victims of a horrible crime for their statements and photos of the deceased. It’s a hyena-like task that I still do and will always dislike.
The darker side of the police beat or investigative journalism in Japan, especially when covering the yakuza, or as the police call them boryokudan (暴力団), or violent groups, is that eventually you’ll meet with violence. And I have several times. It’s left me with a litany of injuries – a weekly regimen of physical therapy, chronic post-traumatic stress and some brain damage.
As it stands, the head injury I suffered in 2010 has been both a blessing and a curse. It has resulted in temporal lobe seizures, less frequent as time goes on. I have a lesion in my brain, located around the temporal lobe – the product of a two-story fall, I suppose that was the initial injury (1986). In January 2010, an angry source – an ex-yakuza high as a kite on some very good crystal meth – kicked me in the head after I set him off and what was a conversation turned into a knock-down brawl. I believe he was in the midst of meth psychosis so it was hard to hold it against him.
It took a few days to realize that I wasn’t quite the same after that. I think that’s when things started going wrong on the temporal level; time was out of joint.
You might think that being able to relive the greatest moments of your life would a wonderful thing. You would be wrong. A few times a week, I have the displeasure, usually at random, but sometimes triggered by a sound or scent, of re-experiencing a past event in my life. Often they are very mundane. I wouldn’t call them memories, they’re stronger than that – they’re more than flashbacks. For me, they constitute a temporal dislocation; a disruption in the chronology of life; identity; of who I am and how I feel.
These re-experiences are things like laying down on a futon, beside a window on a rainy day. A woman I used to love, putting her hand on my neck and whispering something into my ear about the growth of oak trees in the summer. I lose myself for a minute, maybe just a few seconds. When I sleep, it’s worse. Sometimes, I relive violent events in my life—with all the fear, adrenaline, anger and pain that came with it. I feel the glass in my feet and I can’t stand up. When I calm down and check the soles and see that there’s nothing there–then I’m fine. It feels just as real as it did back then. I know that there’s no threat but my body doesn’t listen, so going back to sleep isn’t really much of an option. I could take a sleeping pill but that’s also another world of troubles.
I write a lot at night. I know many cafes and bars that are open at 3am; it’s good to have a place to go when it happens.
Generally, I’m very good at covering up my temporal disorder. I slip up now and then. I used to buy picture books for my children and then realize it has been years since they read books without words. My daughter when she was ten once horrified me by telling me that she was going to need a sports bra. Because in my head, I can remember reading to her Alice in Wonderland, the pop-up book, just last night. That was probably six years ago at the time. Everything seems like yesterday.
At least I’m blessed with faculties that tell me my sense of time and chronology is out of whack. But when I’m tired or sleep- deprived, it’s much harder to remember what was past and what is present. After a flashback, I have this strange feeling that time should have stopped where it was; that I should be walking into work at The Yomiuri Shimbun and filing an article on the latest hit- and-run. Right after one ends, I feel myself right back where I was at the time. It’s as if the world had been rebooted and put back to factory-shipped state.
After my temporal clock resets, I find myself feeling about a person I once loved exactly as I did – at what were wonderful little moments in the relationship. Weren’t we dancing together last night in a seedy bar in New York? Why can’t we just start at that point in time again? Because what happened after that doesn’t feel like it happened. It feels for a few moments as if that’s where time stopped.
I feel like I could go back to any point in time and pick up where things were. The rest of the world doesn’t function like that.
I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years. My mentor and sort of second father, Detective Chiaki Sekiguchi died of cancer in 2008. A colleague at the newspaper killed herself. People who were good friends and sources have gone missing. In 2010, lawyer and mentor, Toshiro Igari, was probably killed in the Philippines after taking on my case against the publisher of a yakuza boss’ biography. After obtaining the autopsy report from the Manila police, it’s clear that suicide was not the cause of death. A source, but not a friend, was shot to death in Thailand in April of 2011. I miss him as well, despite myself. My BFF, Michiel Brandt, passed away due to complications from leukemia in 2012. She was 30. I’m now 50. I keep waiting for the pain of that loss to be a little less but it stays. Even when you are well aware that life is impermanent and death comes to us all, sometimes it just seems too soon. There’s a part of you that doesn’t expect you to outlive your friends, especially when they are so much younger than you. Sometimes, I see her in dreams as well.
Sometimes, I have flashbacks to moments where I was a total jerk. Where I was rude or insensitive and I feel the same pangs of regret in the present that I felt in the past. I relive the mistake with no possibility of correcting it.
I have keys to apartments to where I can never go back in the physical universe. But in my own mindscape, I was just there and will be there again. Everything should be just where it was. The peanut butter in the cupboard, my toothbrush in a drawer, the balcony door open. The computer would be on the desk where I used to keep it. My desk in the Metro Police Headquarters should still have my stack of yakuza fanzines on top, stuffed into a cheap cardboard box. I wish I could throw away the old keys but I have this irrational belief that I will need them—even though the locks must have been changed and there is no reason to go back and no one there I know anymore.
Some of the memories are horrific. And they come with all the pain and horror of the time: photos casually shown to me that I never wanted to see; the smell of rusty iron from a bloody body, laying cut to shreds on a train track; or the sensation of burning, when a thug stubbed out his cigarette on my shoulder.
In general, maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Japan, I try to take a stoic approach to things. The idea of seeing a psychotherapist to resolve mental issues seemed like a waste of time. But I finally went to see one in 2010, to try and do something about my insomnia. After a couple of sessions, the diagnosis was chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. He recommended anti- depressants to deal with the hyper-vigilance issues. I didn’t take them. I stopped going. I need to be hyper vigilant at times. It’s a survival mechanism.
I don’t want to turn it off; I just want to control it better. Meditation helps. Sleep helps. Exercise helps.
I thought that diagnosis would explain the strange flashbacks that were happening, but all I could find in the literature were references to people having flashbacks to traumatic events, not mundane or pleasant moments. It took a scan of my head and a visit to a neurologist to finally get diagnosed correctly.
There has to be a reason why we forget things. If we could recall the past too vividly, the present might pale in comparison. If we can’t forget, we can’t move on. Maybe our minds would explode with the complications of retaining memories of the past and awareness of the present at the same time.
I have anxiety about sleeping. I never know what time of my life I’ll wake up in. The persistence of the past both helps and hinders my relationships in the present. It helps because I get to relive mistakes and am thus reminded not do them again. It hinders because I’m able to forgive and then forget I’ve forgiven someone in the first place. Or forgive myself.
I’d like to walk on; I just keep treading water.
There’s a weariness that comes with covering violent crime, fraud, and human trafficking. There’s a sense of futility. You keep covering the same story, over and over – only the characters change. The narrative remains the same. In recent years, I’ve moved away from crime reporting and covering the yakuza. Bitcoin, politics, social issues, corruption, financial news. There’s a whole other world of things to report on–and just as important to know as well.
These days I’m in a good place mentally and physically. I am, if not happy, quite content with where I am and what I’m doing. But sometimes when I wake up, especially after having a disorienting flashback, I find myself strangely detached from life itself. I can only explain it by borrowing the words of Qoheleth, in the Book of Ecclesiastes:
What has been is still happening now
What has been will be again and be as it is
just as it was
There is nothing new under the (Iand of the rising) sun.
The argument that “It’s worse in XXX (China,North Korea, US) so it’s okay to have XXX (sexism/racism/fascism/wage slavery/death by overwork) in Japan” is silly. It’s like the accused in a murder trail arguing, “I should be declared innocent because I only killed one person in the robbery but my partner killed three.” Some things are never okay. Whataboutism is the last resort of the intellectually dishonest weasel. (Sorry kids).
I don’t think that the work we do is shouting to the wind. Every effort matters. Sometimes sarcasm is an effective tool. We try to be polite in our response to the comments but rudeness is sometimes met with rudeness. 親しき仲にも礼儀あり
Does any of our work make a difference? Yes.
Actually, in my time as a reporter, me being “Jake Adelstein”, on editing duty today–criticism of huge problems in Japan, via articles that I have written and written with others, resulted in better laws against human trafficking, comprehensive measures to deal with dioxin pollution, and the Japanese government recently admitting that there is a huge problem with exploitation of underage girls that needs to be dealt with.
I and many of the writers on this blog who live in Japan, love this country, and loving a country doesn’t mean remaining silent; it means speaking up about what is wrong, and correcting it. The effort doesn’t always work but sometimes it yields results. And people who can’t see any fault or social problems in their country or refuse to do anything about it or just as complicit in the rise “dark corporations,” greedy nationalists, death by overwork, exploitive enterprises, corrupt politicians, and the nuclear industrial complex that have done so much harm to the nation. For decades many warned of the dangers that TEPCO and its poorly managed nuclear power plants held. They were ignored. It doesn’t make them any less correct.
The battle to protect human rights, worker rights, equal rights, the environment, democracy, the public right to know, justice, gender equality and to fight poverty and end corruption are important struggles. All over the world. Japan is no exception.
I’m a Soto Zen Buddhist priest in training, which is a part of Japanese culture–surprise! I wouldn’t argue the metaphysics of Buddhism are true, but there are universal truths and there is a motto that I have as an editor and journalist and try to keep in my own personal life. Pardon the idealism but I believe this creed applies everywhere in the world.
So below is a modified version of our editorial policy, adapted from the Dhammapada (法句経）. Thank you for your consideration.
Jake Adelstein, Japan Subculture Research Center, editor in chief
Conquer anger with compassion. Conquer evil with goodness. Conquer trolls with humour & sarcasm Conquer ignorance with knowledge Conquer stinginess with generosity. Conquer lies with truth
Some men in Japan just don’t seem to get that objectifying women is wrong.
In the land of the rising sun, the objectification of women is not only a thing, it’s a solid tradition and time-honored marketing ploy. Sometimes though, the tables can be turned the other way. This happened when Weekly SPA, a magazine famed for insisting that sex and money are the only things worth striving for, came out with a story in late December about which colleges had the most number of ‘yareru’ (i.e., easily f*ckable) women. Honorable first place went to Jissen Women’s University, followed by other prestigious women’s universities Otsuma and Ferris. Co-ed universities Hosei and Chuo came in 4th and 5th.
Normally, this would have caused a total of zero ripples on the calm surface of Japan’s societal pond (all the scum lurks beneath) but one young woman dared to raise her voice. This is Kazuna Yamamoto, a senior at International Christian University. Yamamoto saw the article and wrote to petition websitechange.org – that Japan should stop objectifying women, and noted the nation’s women “do not exist [soley] for the benefit of men.” In two days, Yamamoto’s petition amassed close to 30,000 sympathizers.
SPA editor-in-chief Takashi Inukai issued a public apology, saying that ‘yareru’ was in this case, inappropriate. Sorry. What SPA really meant to say, was ‘become on friendly terms with.’ Come on guys, is that the best you could do?
To make matters marginally more demeaning, SPA’s article was really about the practice of ‘gyara nomi,‘ which is a thing among young Japanese. (The ‘gyara’ comes from guarantee – in this case, cash.) In a ‘gyara nomi,’ a group of men meet a group of women at a drinking party. The men pick up the tab, and they are also obligated to offer money to women they find especially attractive. The women may or may not be pressured into sex by accepting the monetary gift but according to ‘Reina,’ a woman who regularly attends such gatherings, says “the sex is sort of mandatory. I mean, you can’t say no after the guy pays you. For myself and a lot of other girls, it’s a side hustle.” SPA covered an actual ‘gyara nomi’ party and an app that matches up college girls from the aforementioned universities wanting to earn a little cash, and men looking for a quick roll in the hay. It goes without saying that gyara nomi are limited to women under 25, (pre-Christmas cake age) though men do not face that censure.
Two factors are at play here: the objectification of women surely, but it’s also about women seizing the opportunity to cash in on their objectification. In a pathetically perverse way, you could say this is a win-win situation, or at least a supply and demand equation. Such a scenario is nothing new under the rising sun. Until Japan finally opened its doors to the West, objectifying women was so taken for granted the women themselves thought nothing of it.
By the way, the geisha trade of old was all about pushing the envelope of objectification: the closer a geisha got to simulating a perfectly made-up doll who danced and poured sake for her male clients (with a hinted promise of post-party sex), the better.
And in spite of all the water under the bridge and modernization with a vengeance, not a whole lot has changed. The practice of gyara nomi attest to the fact that Japanese men would would rather pay for sex, than god forbid, having to go through the arduous process of talking with a woman and getting to know her, and her consent– before taking her to bed.
As for the women themselves, like the aforementioned Reina many see their youths as a side hustle. If men and society insist on viewing college girls as ‘yareru’ cuties slinging Samantha Thavasa handbags over their arms, then there’s no shortage of college girls who bank on that view. Wearing short skirts, attending gyara nomi parties and then the next day, laugh about the men with their girlfriends at Starbucks. What’s the harm – but more to the point, how will they finance those Samantha Thavasa handbags if not through men? No self-respecting college girl wants to admit she had to buy one all on her own. With the exception of a weird few who want to waste their precious youth pursuing a medical degree (we know where such lofty ambitions wind up), young women find it easier to cater to male fantasies, and be compensated in one way or another for their trouble.
An apology from SPA will not likely change the way things are, but maybe, just maybe – it’s a tiny step taken toward…not anything so drastic as equality but non-objectification? On the day after the SPA fiasco, Peach John – one of Japan’s most lucrative women’s lingerie companies – issued an online apology about ‘inappropriate wording’ on one of their products. This was a supplement, touted as a ‘love potion.’ “Slip it into a loved one’s dish or cup, to get that person in the right mood for love” said the product description. (Editor’s note: At least that sounds better than menstrual blood in Valentine’s Day chocolates ) Peach John terminated its sales and promised that they will be “more careful” about choosing the right phrases. Cash, potions, deception, discrimination…would this all go away if Japanese men and women just learned to talk to each other?
Recently a Company called Shuukan Spa has released a ranking of “University students with easy-access girls” on a public magazine. (Published October 23, 2018)
2018 was a year where women from all over the world fought for women’s rights, so that our voices were delivered.
Japan will be having the first G20 summit this year, 2019 and it is ridiculous for an article such as this to be published. It’s not funny at all.
I would like to fight so that especially on public articles such as this one, sexualizing, objectifying and disrespecting women would stop.
We demand Shuukan Spa to take this article back and apologize, and promise to not use objectifying words to talk about women.
This sexualizing of women is not funny.
In Japan according to a study done by the Ministry of Justice, only 18.5% of the women report sexual assault or rape.
How about the left over 81.5%?
They don’t speak up. Can not speak up.
Because sexual assault, random guys touching your butt in public trains, having their crotch up your butt, rape, is something women have to deal with.
Because We use underaged girls in bikinis to fulfill the fetish of those who love baby faces.
Because we idolize young girls.
Because honestly, the society hasn’t changed ever since the time of comfort women.
Because men and women do not believe that we are worth the same as men.
In this world, 1 out of 5 women are raped or sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday.
According to the ministry of Justice, only 1 out of 10 people actually get convicted, after being sued for sexual assault.
In 2018, the world fought.
In some countries, abortion finally became legal.
100 year anniversary since Women got voting rights.
Women in Saudi Arabia were able to drive.
And using Social Media, people spoke up using #MeToo #NoWomenEver and in South America, #NoEsNo and #AbortoLegalYa.
This year we will not only hold the G20 nor but the W20 (women 20)
We demand that the media stops using words to discriminate women, objectify women, disrespect women and sexualize women.
We, women are not less than men.
We are human too.
We do not LIVE for men.
We do not exist for men.
Let’s raise our voices because I am sick of this society where women are objects.
Thanks to the True Story Award, a new prize for written reportage, from 30 August to 1 September 2019, over 60 reporters from right around the world will come together in Bern, Switzerland. Nominate the best journalists and stories in Japan.
Today, submissions open for the True Story Award, the first global award for reporters writing for newspapers, magazines and online publications. The prize recognises written reportage from all countries and in 12 of the world’s most widely spoken languages. The prize will be awarded to work that stands out through in-depth research, journalistic quality and societal relevance.
The prize seeks to motivate journalists from across the world and to support their work. In many places around the world, the loss of diverse and independent media coverage of events and developments is damaging the ability of the public to freely form critical opinions. Which makes it even more important to have courageous and innovative reporters – in all societies and countries. It’s for these reporters that the True Story Award has been created. To begin with, a jury representing 29 countries will nominate a total of 42 reporters. Following this process, an eight-person jury will determine the winners.
The nominees and selected members of the international jury will be invited to attend the prize ceremony in Bern, Switzerland. But it doesn’t end there. At a three-day festival, they will share stories about their work in various contexts around the globe. At some 50 public events, they will provide insights into the conditions under which their research was carried out, will discuss some of the obstacles and resistance they faced, tell stories, and provide the public with new persepectives on contemporary events. It will be the first festival of its kind in the German-speaking world. Apart from the award ceremony, entry to all events will be free.
The prize was conceived and launched by Reportagenmagazine, and the True Story Award and the accompanying festival will be carried out in close collaboration with Bern Welcome. The prize is funded by the newly founded True Story Award Foundation.
Marcel Brülhart, Chairman of the Board, Bern Welcome, bruelhart (at) recht-governance.ch, +41 (0)79 359 59 66
Bern Welcomebrings together city marketing, tourism and local activities in the city of Bern. This merger is the first of its kind in Switzerland.
The organisations Bern Tourismand Bern Meetings & Eventsare both included under the umbrella of Bern Welcome AG, and share a joint strategic and operational structure.
Bern Welcomeis primarily funded by the city of Bern, the business network BERNcityand the associations Hotellerie Bern+Mittelland andGastroStadtBern.
Reportagenis an independent magazine for contemporary storytelling. Outstanding authors tell fascinating stories from around the world. Researched in the field, with the protagonists themselves, and off the beaten track. A new edition every second month. In a sleekly designed paperback and a digital format.Reportagenis available in bookstores and from newsagents, in the App Store and by subscription.