The above image is of the shinto Kanamara Matsuri (“Festival of the Phallus”) held each spring at the Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki,Japan.

The Kanamara Matsuri is centred on a local penis-venerating shrine. The legend being that a sharp-toothed demon (vagina dentata) hid inside the vagina of a young woman and castrated two young men on their wedding nights. As a result, the young woman sought help from a blacksmith, who fashioned an iron phallus to break the demon’s teeth, which led to the enshrinement of penis-venerating. The Kanayama Shrine was popular among prostitutes who wished to pray for protection from sexually transmitted infections.

Japan has a patriarchal past still evident in its contemporary society, related in Shinto Japan’s so-called ‘indigenous’ religion, where gender roles are often reinforced through objectification and the targeted use of sight.

Male sight, specifically, occupies a privileged position in everything from ancient myths to the modern wedding ritual and continually exerts an oppressive influence on the lives of women, monitoring and impeding their public movements. The twin themes of men dominating women through sight and women building social as well as literal shelters from that sight cut across time and space in ritual practice. It is not quite certain whether in Japan’s early history, the existence of priestesses preceded that of the priests or not. We cannot say whether a golden age of women ever existed or not.

Aka fujo “Feminine Pollution” involves the idea of “pollution” in Shinto ritual, which has been used in the past to justify discrimination against a variety of groups, including women. Embedded in the idea of pollution, however, is what a society finds threatening and dangerous to its social order; the categorization of women as polluting, therefore, might speak to the fear of women even in a patriarchal society as well as being a remnant of ancient practices where women were revered for their unique spiritual powers.

Nevertheless, women have historically been pushed out of the public eye and out of public religious spaces because of their supposed impurity and to this day women are haunted by the belief in their inherent pollution. The actual state of Shinto in its early period has not been sufficiently clarified. A much more important problem is the relationship between men and women in that period where this can be historically substantiated. In the earliest stages, social structures included both men and women however, in time this man plus woman system underwent changes.

Many of the miko (female shamans) and the ancient chronicles speak of female rulers though as the rights and privileges of the various petty rulers were gradually absorbed by the Imperial male dominated family and a centralized empire formed, politics assumed an increasingly rational character, although it was supposed to be determined ultimately by divine will. Thus began the formal and conceptual rift between politics and religion, as a result women retired more and more from this form of society. At this stage the woman was only the emperor’s representative in the religious sphere, and the same process could be observed in the independent provinces.

The second period of Shinto history began with the Taika Reform 645-1867 which brought about a change from the old form of government to a centralized absolute monarchy. In order to achieve political unity in the state, the power of the earlier provincial lords fell to the emperor. This meant that the individual cults of the local gods of the clans (ujigami) had to be organized into one central system. In State Shinto, fulfilling the rite correctly meant that the gods could only appear at a certain time and in a certain place.

Each new step in the modernization of the cultural, political or economic ³elds ousted women further from significant positions in the priesthood. For this reason, the rites had to be performed by official priests and these official priests were ruling men, after this time, priestesses were very rare but in many old shrines the tradition of having a priestess persisted until the tenth century CE.

Three factors are responsible for the decline in the number of priestesses at most shrines:

1. Since the descent of the divinity could now be calculated “mechanically”, as it were, women were no longer really necessary in the priesthood.

2. The Chinese legal system, recently introduced to Japan and on which the priesthood was based, was strictly male-oriented.

3. Buddhism strengthened the notion of the uncleanness of woman, due to her biological and psychological make-up.

The third period of Shintoism, beginning with the Meiji Restoration 1868 to the present day, also considerably affected the position of women. The newly restored Imperial dynasty, with its new national awareness, strove to establish pure Shinto as the national religion, and abolished such mystical elements of Shinto as the concept of inherited charism and the practice of magical rites. Women could no longer be a member of the official priesthood.

Since the Second World War, women have once again been accepted into the priesthood though; women are generally seen as substitutes for male priests. Thus, women have achieved a new position in the Shinto religion by renouncing their specific femininity.

Furthermore, there remain two sexist problems the role of the women in contemporary Shinto:

1. The participation of women is limited at the higher ranking shrines, such as Ise and Atsuta, which had prerogatives during the period of National Shinto.

2. Shinto is still sensitive to contamination by “impure blood,” so that priestesses have to take precautions so as not to defile the cult during menstruation. Their menstrual periods are controlled and regulated through the use of medications.

Many of the roles carved out for women in Shinto emphasize their passivity or subordination to men. Such as the form of spiritual practice specific to women is that of the itako, a type of shaman which has a unique relationship to sight because they are always blind or visually impaired. Their initiation ceremony echoes many of the same themes as those found in the Kojiki and their pairing with a male spirit speaks to the presence of patriarchal influences even within a female-exclusive religious practice.


By Damien Marie AtHope

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