For the first time in its 1,250 year history, Japan’s Naked Man Festival is to admit women to its sacred rites and rituals – well, one sacred ritual anyway. Later this month, a cohort of 40 women, clothed, will be allowed to participate in the naoizasa ritual where they will carry bamboo grass wrapped in cloth into the local shrine. While hardly a stunning breakthrough for women’s liberation, the decision is nonetheless revealing.
It is less a reflection of changing opinions than shifting demographics, with Japan’s vast underpopulated rural areas having to be more flexible with their ancient customs in order to keep them alive. Japan’s rural population has been declining by roughly 200,000 people a year due to urban drift and a disastrously low birth rate; the result is ghost towns and communities that are barely surviving with an average age of about 90. There is widespread property abandonment and you can acquire often substantial dwellings for next to nothing. It is estimated that 869 municipalities may vanish by 2040 while the population of the entire country is predicted to have fallen by a third by 2065.
Young people are leaving the countryside in droves and flooding into the cities where they live only for work, with neither the time, money, living space, nor energy to raise large families. And so as the cities swell and the rural towns dwindle, traditions are forgotten and the culture is gradually erased.
The best-selling author Nire Shuhei wrote about this process in his 2023 book Marginal Nation which depicts a Japan facing demographic catastrophe. He sees the rural communities as doomed while key workers such as doctors find it impossible to make a living servicing tiny populations.