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Phallicism and Fertility in Contemporary Japan: Ancient Traditions or Urban Myths?

CJRC Lecture Series

Join us for Breakfast & Presentation by Dr. Stephen Turnbull, University of Leeds.


Please join us for Breakfast at 8:30am with Dr. Turnbull and stay for his presentation at 9am!

The topic of Japanese phallicism is one that is best known through matsuri such as the famous Tagata Shrine Festival where a large phallus is carried in procession, yet this popular event conceals a much more widespread and little known tradition for which this paper will present the results of the first comprehensive survey to be conducted for many years.  Based on materials drawn from historical records, interviews and fieldwork visits to over 400 shrines including several key festivals, the preliminary findings indicate that Japanese phallicism is a more common phenomenon than is popularly supposed with about 10,000 active phallic shrines still in existence.  These places enshrine a comparatively small number of identifiable kami who have a sexual role, one of whom, Konsei Daimyōjin, acts effectively as the kami of the male sexual organ.   The sexual gods’ presence is indicated by a wide range of natural or created images that act in protective, votive or devotional roles, and in many places female imagery is as prominent and important as the male.

Following some repression of phallicism after the Meiji Restoration a form of revival took place during the twentieth century, and several current phallic festivals that appear to be ancient fertility rituals have originated only in the past fifty years for purely commercial reasons, a trend anticipated in Hobsbawm and Ranger’s notion of an ‘invented tradition’ acquiring a life and mythology all of its own.  Most of these are copies of the Tagata Shrine performance, while in contrast more authentic festivals have been toned down or greatly modified owing to modern social concerns over such matters as ritualised violence to women and child protection.

The lecture will explain the systems of classification that it is possible to apply to phallic shrines and will illustrate the scheme with numerous examples including key festival performances.  Other matters to be discussed include their relationship to mainstream Shinto, the dynamic nature of their related beliefs and practices, the continued relevance of the overall term ‘phallicism’ to describe them in view of the presence of female imagery and the crucial question of their place in an increasingly secular and urban society.


Stephen Turnbull took his first degree at Cambridge and has two MAs (in Theology and Military History) from Leeds University.  In 1996 he received a PhD from Leeds for his work on Japan’s ‘Hidden Christians’.   His work has been recognized by the awarding of the Canon Prize of the British Association for Japanese Studies and a Japan Festival Literary Award.  In 2008 he was appointed Visiting Professor of Japanese Studies at Akita International University, a position he still holds.  Now retired, Stephen Turnbull is also a Research Associate at SOAS and an Honorary Lecturer at Leeds.  He currently divides his time between an annual trip to Akita to teach and much freelance research and advisory work.  His interests are focused on Japanese religion and military history and he has published 71 academic and popular books on these themes together with several journal articles.  His expertise was also put to use in helping design the strategy game Shogun Total War, and in 2010 he acted as Historical Adviser to Universal Pictures for the movie 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves.  Dr. Turnbull’s current academic research projects include a study of Japanese mercenaries in South East Asia in the seventeenth century and a major comprehensive survey of Japan’s phallic shrines.