Japan won't talk about this festival Paraded symbol offends modesty

March 10, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

KOMAKI, Japan -- Buried in antiquity, the origins of Tagata Shrine and its annual festival remain misty. But the reason for the festival's ever-growing popularity is clear.

Indeed, it's so obvious that it's an embarrassment to much of Japan.

The Japan Travel Bureau, for example, distributes no material about the festival. Few guidebooks, except some written by foreigners, describe it. Only a handful of local newspapers publish photographs of it. And few ordinary Japanese elsewhere in the country have ever heard of it.

The attraction is a natural, simplistic expression of primitive Japanese wishes for a rich bounty -- a 7-foot-long phallic symbol carved anew each year from Japanese cypress wood. It is carried every March 15 in a procession as an offering to the widow goddess of rice fields to whom the Shinto shrine here is dedicated.

"It's just like the Dionysian procession in the countryside of ancient Greece," says Takahiro Awata, a Tagata priest.

The "sacred emblem" of Tagata Shrine also provides a look back to the unabashed attitudes toward sex that prevailed in medieval Japan before a sense of embarrassment crept into Japanese social ethics.

Indeed, even at Tagata, one of many shrines throughout the country that celebrate the "emblem," practices have become a bit more modest. The phallic symbol formerly was attached to the straw doll of a warrior in the procession, but that practice was dropped as "too coarse." Later, carrying the symbol by itself came to be considered a bit too bold. Now, it is "housed" under a small shrine-like roof, protruding from both ends.

Still, it provokes controversy.

"In the last hundred years, the clash between primitive simplicity and modern complexity has grown. But so has the symbol itself. It keeps getting bigger and bigger and more grotesque. And the festival, which used to be a quiet celebration, has become more rowdy as people see it as an outlet to relieve stress," Mr. Awata says, somewhat dismayed.

The fading religious hue of the festival, however, hasn't stopped the crowds from growing. In the mid-1960s, attendance was about 20,000. This year, Mr. Awata predicts that 70,000 people will show up -- albeit fewer than last year's crowd of 200,000, which was boosted by the fact that the festival date fell on a Sunday.

At least 3,000 foreigners usually show up too. This year, foreign students and students of Nanzan University in Nagoya have been enlisted to serve as interpreters.

Indeed, Mr. Awata credits American airmen once stationed at the nearby Komaki Air Base, now a Japan Self-Defense Force installation, with giving the festival the fame it has gained among foreigners, including diplomats.

Tamahime, the shrine's goddess, was reputed to have been a widow who came to the Tagata area with her six small children and helped develop the region into rich rice-farming paddies. Not many of the paddies are left today in what increasingly is becoming a suburban community for the metropolis of Nagoya, 40 minutes away by train.

The festival in her honor is a happy, not a lascivious, day -- what Shinto is all about, according to Mr. Awata.

"Christianity is a religion of love. Buddhism is a religion of mercy. Shinto is a religion of gratitude -- of giving thanks for every day of living," he says.

"We want people to come to pray with that feeling," Mr. Awata says. But he admits that nowadays few do. Most, he says, come seeking some personal benefit, or merely to see the shrine's "sacred emblem."

Nonetheless, the shrine itself, as do most Buddhist temples and other Shinto shrines throughout the country, caters to worshipers seeking personal benefits by selling prayers and amulets for health and traffic safety and one for "everything you wish," as well as Tagata's specialties: for en-mu subi ("tying the knot"), pregnancy, safe birth and protection from venereal diseases. And with the decline in farming and the increase in shops, charms for prosperity in business sell well too.

When a wish comes true, the amulets -- in the shape of the phallic symbol -- are to be returned to the shrine along with a new amulet as an offering of gratitude to Tamahime.

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