Women Are Taking Part in a Shinto Festival for the First Time in Over 1,000 Years

The move to save a tradition of freezing nudity says more about Japan’s demographic problems than its progress on gender equality

Women Are Taking Part in a Shinto Festival for the First Time in Over 1,000 Years
Japanese women step in a fountain to be purified during the festival of Hadaka Matsuri. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)

“Hey! Stop pushing!” cries a voice from the river of near-naked bodies. His words are lost in the cacophony of sounds: There is constant low chanting from priests inside the shrine, and buckets of icy water mischievously thrown into the melee provoke screams and laughter.

I am at Hadaka Matsuri, or the “Naked Festival,” which is the most important religious ritual of the year for the residents of Inazawa in central Japan. Even though the festival occurs in midwinter, thousands of men brave the freezing weather to participate each year.

Dressed only in “fundoshi” — a traditional knotted loincloth — the worshippers start the day by carrying immense bamboo branches to the Konomiya shrine. Around 30 feet long and up to 1,000 pounds, the long sticks, tied with ribbons inscribed with prayers, require over a dozen people to hold them. Groups from all over the city, and even from other parts of Japan, deliver their offerings this way.

After that, the most exciting part of the festival begins. A young man, chosen by the temple as the “shin-otoko” or “divine man,” must make his way, entirely naked, through the loincloth-clad crowd to the inner shrine. The participants push, shove and wrestle each other to get their hands on the shin-otoko. Touching him transfers all your bad luck to him — awarding you a blessed year.

According to the Japanese tourist board, Hadaka Matsuri began in the year 767 when the governor ordered the priests of the Konomiya shrine to rid the area of plague and pestilence. Believing that nudity could drive away evil, they named a shin-otoko. After absorbing everyone’s misfortunes, the shin-otoko was banished from the community.

Today, the role of shin-otoko is an honor and doesn’t lead to exile. Besides that, very little changed in the intervening 1,250 years — until 2024, when organizers announced that women would finally be allowed to participate in Hadaka Matsuri. But this is no sign of increasing gender equality in Japan; rather, demographic changes in the country mean that without broader participation of the population, these ancient festivals will die.

Even so, women’s official participation remained marginal this year. In the morning, before most of the crowd arrived, 40 women carried an offering to the shrine. They were fully dressed in traditional “happi” coats, and none took part in the climactic finale, wrestling their way to touch the holy man.

It might seem a modest step forward for women who practice Shinto, but it was an emotional one, all the same. “I feel happier than I have ever been,” says Atsuko Tamakoshi, 56, who was one of the women who campaigned to be included in the festival. When she moved to Inazawa from Tokyo after her marriage, Hadaka Matsuri was one of the events that made her feel a part of her new community. “My husband was the holy man for several years, and I would always come watch!” she says.

It feels different to finally join in, though. “I am so glad to finally bring my own prayers and wishes to the shrine.” For Tamakoshi, this meant praying for the victims of the deadly earthquake that hit central Japan on Jan. 1.

As we talk, people keep rushing over to greet Tamakoshi. Men shake her hand and congratulate her. Women ask for selfies and thank her for her work. Her role in campaigning for women to join the festival has made her a local celebrity, and many people express joy that women will finally be able to participate in this beloved festival.

Many have longed to do so for years. Yoko Morimoto grew up in Inazawa, but her parents never even allowed her to watch the festival, saying it was too dangerous for girls. She remembers sneaking in with a group of her friends once she reached middle school. “We wanted to see what all the fun was about!” she says. Now, girls can finally take part themselves. “Who knows, maybe I’ll join myself next year!” she says.

It may seem surprising that a religious festival should be deemed too dangerous for little girls to come and watch. But the atmosphere at Hadaka Matsuri is one of testosterone-fueled bravado. It feels like being at a football match or a rowdy bachelor party.

By midafternoon, many groups of men have finished delivering their offerings to the shrine. They are waiting in the cold drizzle for their favorite bit to begin: the arrival of the holy man. In the meantime, they keep warm by drinking copious amounts of rice wine. They lean against the temple walls to smoke — a rare sight in Japan, where smoking in public is frowned upon. They do push-ups and squats; they slap each other’s skin to get the blood flowing. They flirt with women in the audience — flashing their bum cheeks for the camera. The atmosphere is exciting, hectic — and very male-dominated.

After a few glasses of sake, some participants admit they couldn’t imagine women joining in for the full ceremony. “Of course, they couldn’t take part in touching the shin-otoko. It is too dangerous. People have been killed in the crowd,” says Yaichi Kanek. His friend Takayoshi Noguchi scoffs when asked about the women who participated this year. “They aren’t really joining in — they couldn’t! They can’t wear loincloths, can they?”

They could, of course, but that is a different debate. For the women to appear partly naked in public, elbowing their way through the crowds alongside the men, would remain a distant prospect in most of the world. Japan is no different.

In fact, last year, Japan ranked 125th out of 146 in the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Gender Gap Report, placing it far below any other G7 nations. Women make up only a quarter of Japan’s government members — and even the position of minister in charge of women’s empowerment belongs to a man, Masanobu Ogura.

For most of the population, achieving gender equality is not a priority. An IPSOS survey found that Japanese people were the least likely, out of 27 countries, to agree that “achieving gender equality is important to me personally.” Only 41% of women and 31% of men agreed with that statement.

So why did Hadaka Matsuri choose to open its doors to women? The honest answer is not about a wish to empower women. The real reason, local media reports, is to save the ritual at a time when Japan is facing a “festival crisis.”

Most of the population practices Shinto, an indigenous religion focused on rituals related to spirits and deities found in nature. Festivals, known as “matsuri,” are an integral part of worship, a crucial expression of Japanese culture and spirituality.

Yet throughout the country, “matsuri” are disappearing at an alarming rate, as organizers pass away or grow too elderly to handle the work of putting together such an event. In 2016 alone, 60 traditional events in 20 prefectures were suspended or abolished. No more recent statistics exist, but the trend has grown since COVID-19. Many festivals canceled during the pandemic are yet to restart, even as restrictions have ended.

On Feb. 17, 2024, another of the country’s “naked festivals” took place for the very last time. Sominsai has been held at Kokusekiji temple in northern Japan for over a millennium, but the aging volunteers who organize it are too exhausted to continue.

“It takes so much work before, during and after the festival. The volunteers work for days without stopping and spend at least one sleepless night at the temple,” explains Youkou Fujinami, 72, speaking on behalf of her son Daigo Fujinami, who works as the main priest of Kokusekiji temple.

“The temple volunteers have reached an age where some fear they might die of exhaustion,” she continues. “That would be a horrible inconvenience to all organizers, participants and visitors.” The way she phrases this is very revealing of the Japanese sense of duty when it comes to tasks performed for the community. “You have to be Japanese to understand that way of thinking,” my translator tells me with a wry smile.

There was no one to take over the volunteer duties in Kokusekiji, as many of the younger generation have moved away to work in the city, explains Youkou. As the last Sominsai ended, participants were seen crying and hugging each other. “The fun is over,” 74-year-old Takeru Sato told reporters sadly. “I wish it could have continued at least one more year.”

The closing of festivals is a small but palpable sign of how depopulation threatens Japan’s way of life. Japan’s population is declining by around 800,000 people each year, as twice as many people die than are born. Today, 1 in 10 people are over 80 years old. Almost a third are over 65. “Our nation is on the cusp of whether it can maintain its societal functions,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned in January.

In the cities, it is easy to forget this demographic crisis. The average age might be older than in the U.S., but the streets are bustling and vibrant. When you go to the countryside, however, you are struck with a feeling of emptiness: Empty village streets, empty shop fronts, closed-down businesses and abandoned houses are everywhere.

A walk around small towns in Japan makes you realize what a dwindling population really means. It isn’t just numbers. It is a lack of essential workers to care for a swelling elderly population. It is traditions disappearing, as people pass away with no one to pass them on to. It is a culture dying faster than it can be reborn.

Festival organizers up and down the country are working hard to fight this trend and ensure their traditions live on. To do so, they have been forced to adapt to save their events. Some, like Hadaka Matsuri, have opened their doors to women. Other places, such as Yoshida Shrine in Tokamachi, have called upon foreign volunteers to do the heavy work.

“We need more people to join in, including women and young people, to keep the festival alive!” says 82-year-old Akio Nonobe, a temple volunteer for Inazawa’s Hadaka Matsuri. He has been helping with the festival organization since he was a boy, a duty passed on from his father. “The festival is changing, but that is what we must do to ensure it lasts another thousand years!” he said.

“Allowing women to join attracted a lot of media attention — so hopefully, it will get the word out about the festival, and we will have more people coming,” says Naonori Nomura, a junior priest at Inazawa’s shrine.

Adapt or die is the choice facing Japanese festivals — and, in many ways, the same challenge faces Japanese society as a whole.

Japan’s dire record on women’s empowerment is one of the main reasons the birth rate is falling. Women were traditionally expected to prioritize marriage and child-rearing over career advancement. However, as ideas of equality slowly progressed, more Japanese women began to pursue their careers, delaying marriage or choosing not to marry at all. Few policies existed to allow them to have both.

The question of depopulation is so closely linked to women’s empowerment that the same minister takes charge of both — Masanobu Ogura, the Minister in charge of Women’s Empowerment and Measures for Declining Birthrate. Late last year, he announced several measures to fight depopulation, including expanding childcare and promoting wage increases.

A few days after the Hadaka Matsuri, the government released its latest statistics, showing that in 2023 the number of babies born fell for the eighth year in a row. The situation is “critical,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi. “The next six years or so until 2030, when the number of young people will rapidly decline, will be the last chance to reverse the trend.” The window of opportunity to counter depopulation and save Japan’s way of life is closing.

Immersed in the lively festival, surrounded by families, couples and men of all ages in loincloths, it is hard to believe Hadaka Matsuri could be in danger of disappearing. Participants and organizers don’t think it, either. “Hadaka Matsuri will keep going because it works!” says Akiniko Morishima, 72, who has attended the festival since he was a child. “When I took part in it, I touched the holy man. Then I had two successful operations that year!” “Now that women want to join in, it will be a bigger festival,” he adds.

I, for one, am sure to return. A man gifted me a slim strip of loincloth — said to have been blessed by the shin-otoko. “You must bring it back next year and tie it to the temple. Then your wishes will be granted,” he said. I’ll be wishing that this chaotic, friendly and fun-filled festival continues for many years to come.

“Spotlight” is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers twice a week. Sign up here.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy