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The Naked Man in Japan!

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vol. 7

Dear readers,

Welcome back to the Naked Man Journal! In this edition, I will expose you to the raw, primal and most MANLY side of Japan. I am talking about the one – but not only – Hadaka Matsuri, or Naked Festival.

As you may, but probably don't know, the Saidaiji Naked Man Festival is one of Okayama's greatest claims to fame. Of course it's also the inspiration for the title of this Journal. I can very much identify with that awkward, slightly drafty feeling of being completely naked in public. Everyday I still get stares. I get tired of it but at the same time, it has had one positive (?) effect: I am now willing to do just about anything in front of others and feel no shame. The locals on the other hand are deathly afraid of doing something that would draw attention to themselves (karaoke being the one exception). "The nail that sticks out…"

Let me tell you, I AM that nail as are most foreigners. But I don’t let it bother me. I am OUT and proud. Thus, I am liberated. Free of the inhibitions that hold back normal people. I do what I want! Besides, people are going to stare no matter what. Mind you, I do try to respect local customs and fit in as best possible, but it isn't easy...

Anyway, back to the Hadaka Matsuri: During the winter months, there are naked festivals all over Japan, but at 10,000 participants, Okayama's is the largest. I attended it on a cold Saturday evening back in February but haven't been able to put into words exactly what I'd seen until now:

It took place in the town of Saidaiji, about a 30 minute drive from downtown Okayama City. I went with 2 busloads of foreigners – some of us just to observe and others actually planning to participate. Upon arrival, we were welcomed with a short speech by the mayor of Saidaiji and a tour of the grounds where the festival would take place. The Canadian ambassador and his wife were also in attendance.

I was there with my friends from Peru, Pedro and Roberto, who like myself, were just observers. Tim and Mike on the other hand, (from the UK and US respectively), were "going all the way." Their girlfriends had reluctantly come along to show support. Already they were beginning to fear for the lives of their soon to be naked boyfriends.

Tim and Mike seemed to be having second thoughts as well. They were beginning to realize they'd just signed up for an all-out brawl. The purpose of the festival? Quite simple: Capture a scented stick known as a shingi, thrown at exactly midnight, from the rafters of Saidaiji Temple by the head priest. Then take it all the way back to City Hall, at least 10 blocks away, and stick it into a bucket full of dirt. Keep in mind that all the while you will be competing with 10,000 other naked men with exactly the same goal. And there are NO RULES. Participants are allowed to do anything short of kill a man in order to get the shingi before it reaches City Hall.

After successfully plunging the shingi into the bucket of dirt, the winner receives an enormous cash prize, not to mention the favor of the gods. Several lesser, "decoy" shingi are also thrown out. They grant good luck and make swell ornaments for your rearview mirror.

I should add that the participants aren't entirely naked. The vitals are protected (?) by a fundoshi or traditional Japanese loincloth, similar to those you see on Sumo wrestlers. And in case you were wondering, the official word from the Mayor is that women are allowed to participate, but I've never heard of any who did. They seem to be content to let boys be boys and keep this silly homoerotic game to themselves.

That night, it was only a degree above freezing. Rain was coming down in sheets and the ground was a sea of mud. The temple was a typical square, wooden structure with steep steps leading to the main level. This area was entirely open, so you could see the upper floor from which the shingi was dropped.

Entering the festival area was like stepping onto the movie set of King Kong. There was a primitive smell in the air. Facing the street entrance, on the temple's first floor, a group of about 20 women played taiko drums. The deep booms punctuated by their shrill cries, gave me the impression that any minute Kong would appear over the small town skyline, looking for a blond in a white dress about the size of his ring finger.

There was fear and anticipation in the air. Spectators milled around in the rain, snapping pictures, waving the shrine's incense smoke on their bodies for good luck. I soaked up the ambience. At 9:00 pm the first actual festival participants began to arrive in teams of anywhere from 5 to 50 men. It was a bit startling to see them almost completely naked in the chill night air. They marched around as if in a trance, repeating "wa-shoi, wa-shoi." The previously mentioned fundoshi was their only cover. On their feet, they wore sock-like tabi covered in mud.

For the next 3 hours prior to the dropping of the shingi they marched/jogged around the temple, occasionally detouring into a smaller building that housed a pool of ice water. They jumped in and back out to continue their march, psyching themselves up for the battle at hand. Apparently, the water served as a ritual purification. It also made the frigid air seem warm by comparison.

As if the mood wasn't charged enough, special "Winter Fireworks" were launched just over the river behind the temple. I had never seen fireworks in a February sky. It was beautiful, but the clouds and rain muffled the explosions. The colors ran somewhat like the reflection of lights seen from within a car on a rainy night. The fireworks, the rain, the shrill cries of the women beating the drums, the incense smoke, the mud everywhere, the beer, the sweaty, naked bodies in the extreme cold, the smells of fried octopus and cotton candy coming from the food stalls – it overwhelmed the senses.

Once the fireworks ended, we went to a local coffee shop to warm-up a little. It was right across from a blue tent where our foreign men went to have their fundoshi wrapped. Apparently, like a kimono, it's not something you can put on by yourself. In fact, I was later told by my friend Tim that there was a man in there whose sole purpose in life was to gird the loins of naked men! Tim added that the guy yanked the cloth so far up his buttocks that his feet left the ground!

This was done for a reason: Pin the testicles up in the body cavity for their own protection! And obviously, you don't want it unwrapping in the middle of the fray. Most of the foreigners looked understandably uncomfortable in their fundoshis; however, many of the Japanese men seemed to be quite at home. In fact, prior to entering the temple grounds and getting primal, many could be seen leisurely standing around in the rain and cold, smoking a cigarette or having a beer with the fellas.

Speaking of beer, in this same blue tent there was an endless supply of beer and sake for our gaijin group. Most of the other participants were "under the influence" to some degree. The common belief is that it helps to combat the cold and provide liquid courage for the battle at hand. Never mind the fact that alcohol mixed with over exposure could also cause hypothermia (cases are very common on this night).

Finally it was nearing the moment everyone had been waiting for. We left the cafe for the observation area, located on the temple grounds, about 100 meters away from the temple itself. Fortunately, I was able to see above the umbrellas as I'm quite tall compared to the locals.

The intensity was growing. Floodlights lit-up the entire temple precinct. Slowly the inner sanctum was beginning to fill with wet, naked men all jockeying for best position to catch the shingi. Team after team came marching in. There were all types of men. There were the fresh 1st year salarymen who had been forced to participate in company teams -- some sort of sadistic "coworker bonding" activity, the Japanese equivalent to fraternity Hell Week. Those less interested in the glory were simply trying to stay warm. Then there were the real "butt-kicker types. Drunk on beer, sake, adrenaline and testosterone, they walked among the others like lions stalking a herd of gazelle.

Within the temple, a sea of bodies formed. It was beginning to spill down the steps. A horde of naked men were yelling, slipping, climbing and slithering their way inside.

I took my place in a raised viewing area separated by a fence from the temple ground. There were still about 20 minutes before midnight. I was beginning to tune in to the violence breaking out in and just outside the temple: A large man crashed down the front steps, hitting them head first. Two smaller men exited right behind him. I thought they were trying to help, but then realized they were literally kicking him out of the temple! When the man finally hit the ground (with a "thud" that I swear I heard from 100 yards away), I noticed he was foreign.

At the foot of the temple, the foreign man attempted to stand up, but received multiple kicks in the ribs and face. There was nothing he could to do protect himself and no one around to help. I stood 100 yards away unable to do anything but watch the most brutal beating I've ever witnessed (that wasn’t on TV!). Although it was over in less than a minute, it seemed like ages before anything was done to stop them.

Eventually a swarm of white raincoat-wearing police with clubs arrived and laid into the two assailants. The two men actually tried to put up a fight with the police but were beaten into submission. Meanwhile, not one of the 40 or so police bothered to check on the man laying in the mud! He was able to stand-up of his own volition but by that point he must have had absolutely no idea where he was. Somehow he managed to stand and staggered away, bleeding heavily from cuts and gashes all over his body. One of the police finally noticed and escorted him back to the First Aid tent. The 2 men who had attacked him were not taken into custody. Instead they were allowed to re-enter the fray. I heard a plea come from an enormous loudspeaker, "Naked Men! Please don’t fight!" Apparently that was their only reprimand.

I looked behind me at Roberto and Pedro. "Did you see what happened to that gaijin?!" I asked them in Spanish. Both of them looked a little stunned and gravely nodded their heads. Roberto had actually considered participating, if for no other reason than to get all the alcohol he could drink and run around naked without getting arrested.

Ironically, that loudspeaker message signaled the beginning of a string of beatings. I say "beatings" because, I don’t think I saw a single one that wasn't completely one-sided. About three minutes later, I saw another foreigner get involuntarily "ushered" out of the temple. I then saw my gaijin group come "wa-shoi-ing" their way in and I feared for their lives. I tried to telepathically inform them: "DO NOT GO INTO THE TEMPLE!"

But that's exactly what they did. I should've guessed that Tim, being the stiff upper-lipped, overly competitive Englishman that he was, would be leading the way. First however, they marched into the cold pool of water. They came out "glistening" as Tim would later describe it. He said the feeling of diving into the ice water, after jogging for an hour, barefoot in the mud, was the most enjoyable part of the evening. After the purification bath, Tim, Mike and a small band of courageous (or really stupid?) foreigners, made their way up the temple steps.

Time passed. Tensions mounted. The mass of bodies in and around the temple continued to multiply exponentially. I would see fights erupt, like bubbles of molten lava forming and exploding as they spilled down a mountainside.

At some point during all this craziness, a group of real, hardened criminals arrived. I had heard that the yakuza (the Japanese Mafia - in Okayama, they're well represented) had been barred from competing in the Naked Man festival. There was a rule not allowing men with tattoos to participate. Highly ornate Japanese tattoos all over one's upper body are a yakuza trademark. That being said, these guys without tattoos seemed to be just as evil. Their fundoshis were black (almost all the others wore white), and they had black electrical tape wrapped just above their biceps. Wherever they went, trouble and pain seemed to follow.

I saw two of them (one VERY large and scary) chase a much smaller man out of the temple, down the steps and around the temple grounds, until he finally decided to stay his ground and fight. This was a bad idea. He was faster than the other two, but no way was he stronger. In effect, he was committing suicide. But he was going to die with honor, kamikaze-style. He got in one good swing, but hit only air. The other two, showing signs that this wasn’t their first fight, wrapped up the smaller man's arms and proceeded to beat him senseless.

To my total amazement, there was a policeman about ten feet away doing absolutely nothing! He had to be aware of it! He was obviously there for crowd control but "breaking up brutal beatings" wasn't in his job description. Eventually the same group of white coated police rushed the two men in black. Once the beating frenzy ended, the men were again set free to return to bullying. Each time violence broke out, that same pathetic voice would boom out over the loudspeaker: "Naked men, please don't fight."

Ironically, this seemed to be the only reason why many participants were there. Perhaps they were tired of being subservient in their daily lives to their parents, bosses, customers, etc, bowing so much that they even began to bow when talking on the phone! In Japan, there is always somebody above you.

Naked Man Festival may be the one opportunity these men have to be entirely selfish, so of course they're going to go a bit overboard! They don’t have to bow or say "I'm sorry" (one of the most frequently heard phrases in Japan) to anyone! On this night, they can go crazy with no repercussions, so long as they don't kill anybody (it was OK to inflict severe injuries).

I saw the police attack one guy in an attempt to dissuade him from brutalizing someone else. The man was finally let go, but the minute the police turned their backs, the man went into a berserk rage and actually charged all 40+ police! Never mind the fact that they were fully armed (and clothed). He crashed into the mob of raincoats, knocking down cops like he was a bowling ball and they were the hapless pins. Assaulting a police officer? Even he was allowed to return to the temple!

Well I should have known – if another foreigner was going to get into a fight, it would be Tim. He's just too uptight. Sooner or later somebody was going to take a swing at him. On the temple steps, I saw a slender gaijin quickly, but gingerly, running down to ground level. It was Tim. A couple of Japanese men were chasing after him, but Tim was impressively fleet of foot (especially for a man without shoes). Unlike most of the men present, Tim looked quite sober and alert as he darted through the crowd. I wouldn't have expected him to run from a fight. With his manliness at stake, I was sure he'd accept any challenge, but there he was "running away." He reminded me of a streaker, trying to evade the police.

Fortunately, Tim received help from a wall of men (both foreign and Japanese) who formed to create a barrier between him and his attackers. Pushing and shoving was exchanged before the police arrived. I was curious to see which of the two parties they would pommel first. Tim's attackers answered this question by charging the cops! As the battle ensued, some fellow foreigners checked Tim for injuries. I could tell by their body language that he was fine. Joined arm in arm, they charged back up the steps.

Finally the moment everyone had been waiting for was about to arrive. The floodlights on the temple went pitch black. The crowd roared. Everything was now dark except for a zillion camera flashes coming from both in and outside the temple. From where I was standing, the constant flashes lighting up the darkness seemed to have a magical, kinetic effect. The fervor reached its peak. The shingi dropped.

Or at least I think it did. Because of the darkness I never actually saw it – not until the next day on TV when I saw three hardy men in tattered, muddy loincloths plant it in the dirt in front of City Hall.

I have no idea how the shingi got from point A to point B. After the drop, the lights flooded back on and the swarm of bodies flowed like a tidal wave, out of the temple. Dog piles and fights broke out all over the place. Eventually we were informed via loudspeaker that the shingi had left the temple precinct and was making its way down the street. We slowly removed ourselves from the area. I was stunned – not only by all that I had seen but, how it could end so quickly.

Back on the bus, Roberto and I concluded that the Naked Man festival serves 3 purposes in Japanese society:

1) Religious Purification

2) Right of Passage

3) Stress Release

As for myself, I think I'll look for ways to blow off steam, exert my manhood, and purify my spirit that don't involve being naked in public on a cold night in February.



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DUCTS summer issue 2001
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