Japanese 'Naked' Festivals Keep Centuries-Old Tradition Alive

Aug 11, 2016
Originally published on August 22, 2016 4:17 pm

Japan is home to many local festivals, but some of the best known are the ones in which men run and jump around nearly naked — not for dirty reasons, but for ancient religious ones.

The hadaka matsuri or "naked festival" dates back centuries in Japan. Men perform in traditional fundoshi (loincloth) to purify themselves before gods, to bring luck and prosperity or to welcome new seasons.

To see one for myself, I headed in early July to Shimadachi, a village high up in the Japanese Alps — where elementary schoolboys keep up the tradition of marching around town in only loincloth.

While perhaps strange if you've got a Western sensibility, the practice is rather routine and vaunted here. It is believed that nearly 300 years ago, evil spirits had sickened the townsfolk with disease. When the village boys paraded around wearing loincloth, prayed to the Shinto god of health at a small temple and then purified themselves publicly before the gods, they were able to ward off disease, driving out those evil spirits.

No one wants to be the one to stop a centuries-old tradition, so the hadaka matsuri continues. I followed along as nearly 90 boys prayed two-by-two at a small Shinto temple, then shouldered giant flags mounted on bamboo and marched around their town this way for nearly two hours. (They did get a break in a nearby auto repair shop, to fuel up with some snacks).

But the most fun for the kids came at the end. After hours in the nearly 90-degree heat, they were able to perform the purification part of the ceremony by jumping together into a shallow pond — so shallow that once the boys jumped in, it was just a giant puddle of mud.

It's an old tradition that, for the kids of Shimadachi, never gets old.

Akane Saiki contributed to this story.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're going to go to another one of those unusual summer festivals today. This one happens in Asia. It involves a parade, boys and young men who aren't wearing much and mud. NPR's Elise Hu takes us there.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: We are high up in the Japanese Alps in the village of Shimadachi for the Shimadachi Hadaka Matsuri, which translates to Naked Man Festival. The participants won't be fully naked. They will be wearing traditional loincloths or fundoshi.

This tradition started back in the Edo period in order to help ward off disease. The village had fallen sick, and the town's children marched around in fundoshi to the Shinto shrine, scare off the evil spirits, cure the townsfolk. And 250 years later, the kids continue to do this.

Some of the young kids have already gotten dressed in their traditional costumes for this festival. It includes a bright yellow headband as well as the loincloths.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Konnichiwa.

HU: Tell me what you'll be doing today.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Through interpreter) I will march around the town, and I will jump into the pond.

HU: All right, we're on the move. We're parading through the village with the leading boys, the 10 to 12-year-olds, chanting while they're holding this giant, 20-foot-long flag pole made out of bamboo.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Chanting in Japanese).

HU: I'm trying not to get smacked in the face with the bamboo stalk.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Chanting in Japanese).

HU: This is a small Shinto shrine, and the parade has made it here. And now with their bamboo stalks, they will pray to the god of health.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Chanting in Japanese).

HU: I think now that the ancient religious ritual is coming to a close, these boys are getting excited about the next part of the event.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: And this is the big, muddy finale - boys jumping into a pond to purify themselves before the gods. At the Shimadachi Hadaka Matsuri summer festival, I'm Elise Hu, NPR News.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: My mic is getting positively doused by mud right now. I don't know if my gear is going to make it through this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.