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Saturday, Oct. 19, 2002
Kenka Matsuri: death and hairy butts
By AMY CHAVEZ
Butts! Hairy butts! That's all I could think of among the chaos of men in loincloths rushing around Shirahama in Himeji last weekend. I was there for the Kenka Matsuri, or Fighting Festival, at Matsubara Hachiman Shrine. The official name is the Nada Fighting Festival, perhaps because that is what the participants are wearing -- nada! With such flesh on display, one can't help but be impressed with the variety of Japanese butts: hairy butts, pimpled butts, dimpled butts, square butts and bony butts. It's all part of the Japanese festival atmosphere.
Himeji's Kenka Matsuri is one of Japan's more violent festivals. One brochure describes it thus: "Portable shrines, shouldered by half-naked youths, jostle each other and the bearers vie to show their skill in balancing the shrines." Half-naked? No, these guys are butt-naked!
Butt-nakedness is actually a tradition of some Japanese Shinto festivals. Here are a few common characteristics of such festivals:
Hadaka -- nakedness: Nakedness figures into many festivals from the kenka matsuri to the hadaka matsuri, which have several versions. Exactly how nakedness increases physical strength or stamina is questionable, but since weight-lifters wear few clothes while performing incredible feats of strength, and the sexual act is performed with no clothes on, I suspect there is some connection between nakedness and strength.
Mikoshi -- portable shrines: This is a misnomer because 2-ton palanquins only become portable when 30 to 50 naked men are available to move them. These shrines are as portable as a dead water buffalo. Normally, one would think of such an act as carrying around such heavy structures as punishment in hell. But for some reason, most likely because there is alcohol involved, we think this is fun!
Fundoshi -- loincloths: More revealing than a string bikini for gals, the loincloth used by the men in festivals tells all -- from the back. When I say loincloths, I'm not talking about flimsy little pieces of lint in Renaissance paintings. These are fundoshi: reinforced, working-man loincloths, meant as much to keep things out as to keep things in. Fundoshi are sturdy and secure, as long as you know how to tie the industrial-size knot that keeps it on. I'm sure they inject the knot with Super Glue as a precaution. Although Japanese are generally reserved, when it comes to wearing fundoshi all modesty is unraveled. If loincloths were a new invention, we would call them risque. But since they are an old tradition, they are fun, acceptable and not considered revealing. After all, these men have a job to do: move dead water buffalo.
Shinto Gods: Gods are always at the root of these festivals. Since so many of the festivals involve fundoshi, I am convinced these Shinto gods are mostly women.
In the Nada Kenka Matsuri, each neighborhood carries its own shrine from place to place. A taiko drummer sits in the shrine and beats a drum to which the members chant while dropping the shrine and slamming it down on the ground. Eventually, each neighborhood uses its shrine as a weapon and rams it against other shrines. Apparently, the harder the shrines collide, the more pleased the gods are. Shrines overturn, fistfights break out and people sometimes die in the clashes. The shrines themselves get destroyed, so they must be rebuilt every year. I don't know if they rebuild the taiko drummer.
All in all, it's not such a bad thing. It makes sense to have a fighting festival once a year to settle disputes so we can all live harmoniously throughout the rest of the year. I think all disputes should be settled with shrines. The Protestant-Catholic conflict in Ireland and the Palestinian-Israel conflict could be settled with shrines. We could even have a huge Bush vs. Saddam festival, with both leaders fighting in fundoshi -- butt-naked.
Contact Amy at email@example.com or visit the "Japan Lite" home page at www.amychavez.com