The significance of the body in Japanese culture

Why is it necessary for the participants to be naked?
What was the relationship between the Holy Man and his initiation into the Former Holy Men’s society and the participants?
Why was the drunkenness and anarchy necessary for the participants?
Most particularly, why were the Naked Men so violent?
How have anthropologists looked at ritual?
How have anthropologists looked at the body?
How do we treat ecstasy?
Can we discuss an individual’s religious experiences from the point of view of the social?
What is the relationship between body, ritual and spirituality?

The Ritual

The ritual process in anthropology has been treated a number of ways.

Very broadly speaking: we can look at the:

1. Freudian school which sees ritual as an expression of psychosexual tension in the individual members of society.

2. Transition-rite theories of Arnold Van Gennep stress the role of ritual as reinforcing social structure by creating drama around points of transition.

3. Durkheimian ideas around dividing social life into the sacred and the profane, and the idea that religious rituals are a tool by which society reemphasis solidarity of the group.

i.e. Ritual is social action where there is organised cooperation of individuals, directed by a leader, enabling the ritual to achieve its purpose (La Fontaine 1985).

In this view, there is a heavy concentration on ritual as positive affirmation of social structure.

Leach did open up the field somewhat in arguing that ritual practices as cultural category involve communicated messages through which the “values and structures of a contradictory world may be addressed and manipulated. (Comaroff 1985).

Turner (1973) claimed that the individual’s experience of ritual transcends cultural categories and social structures, and it is “anti-structure” that structural conflicts are resolved. In ritual, it is through repetition, and exposure to contrasting symbols and themes that we learn which themes apply to which cultural settings and how we should apply them. Rituals include seasonal matters (planting and harvest), contingency (life crises and avoidance or exorcism of affliction), divination (determining what to do), initiations (where secret knowledge of a group is imparted), defense (of the body, community etc), and acknowledgement (of good fortune etc).

Gluckman followed up with work on “rituals of rebellion”, while Asad claimed that we cannot discuss the effectiveness of ritual behaviour without looking at the various strategies that involve the formation of correct rules and models to follow: rituals are taught and learned, created and experienced, in conditions imposed by power (1983). Geertz claimed that rituals, too, provide models for the world as it is and as it should be.

Alexander’s definition (1997) is preferable: “Traditional religious rituals open up ordinary life to ultimate reality or some transcendent being or force in order to tap its transformative power.”

However, ritual process is not always evident to the participants:
Ritual process is a way of interweaving social institutions with the surrounding natural world and making them facts of social life, almost as inevitable as the seasons and the natural world (La Fontaine 1985).

It is important, therefore, to separate what people do and what people say they do (Goody 1961). Symbolic meaning underlying ritual is not always apparent to the participants themselves.

The Body

In the early years of the twentieth century, a number of anthropologists, such as Durkheim, Mauss, and Hertz, argued that bodily expressions are not genetically determined but are learned through social conditioning. Thus, society conditioned the body.

Later, however, anthropologists such as Douglas and Turner saw things the other way around – the body provides the categories by which we understand society. Benthall and Polhemus called the body the “foremost of all metaphors” for society’s self-understanding. In the 1980s, George Lakoff insisted that the categories by which we order all knowledge and thought are intrinsically somatic, rather than being abstract or body-neutral. Thus the body becomes primary, determining society rather than vice versa.

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These different approaches have come together in recent years to create an understanding of the body and society as inextricably linked. Catherine Bell has commented:

It appears we are now reappropriating the image of the body: no longer the mere physical instrument of the mind, it now denotes a more complex and irreducible phenomenon, namely, the social person.

This means that to understand the body we must understand social practices, and vice versa. The body is at the heart of ritual, and so it is via the body that social values are passed on. Pierre Bourdieu called this process a “dialectic of objectification and embodiment”. It is through the body that we experience all things, and it is through the body that we learn to comprehend them in the categories of our society.

It is part of the essence of ritual that it is physical, indeed, somatic. As Bourdieu has pointed out, ritual involves physical events and actions, in a physical space. By participating in rituals, those involved make their bodies part of a ritual scheme.

Still here, the concentration is on the use of the body in ritual to obtain a socially compliant individual.

I follow Van Gennep in seeing ritual as holding the potential to transform people and situations and it is in this that rituals hold their power. “Because rituals are performed, sometimes in terrifying circumstances, the messages that they carry act at a psychobiological level that includes but exceeds the rational mind.”

Bourdieu describes ritual activities as posing an initial opposition based on a fundamental dichotomy, applying different symbolic schemes to a single object or practice, and applying a single symbolic scheme to different logical universes. Through these operations, whole systems of ritual symbols and actions can be generated by means of a small number of oppositions, and in their most fundamental, these all prove to be based on the movements and postures of the body.


In “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, William James describes a mystical experience as necessitating ineffability (a state of feeling that must be experienced and cannot be described in words), noetic quality (the mystic has an overwhelming experience of understanding), transiency (briefness of duration), passivity (even though the experience is induced by taking drugs, imposing intense discipline on the senses etc) the mystical experience itself puts one in a state where another power seems to take over).

Mystical experience has to be an individual experience, but how it is experienced must also be grounded in the social environment. The job of the anthropologist is to look at how different societies conceptualise ecstasy (Lewis 1971):

How does the production of religious ecstasy relate to the social circumstances of the participants, how enthusiasm waxes and wanes in which conditions, and what functions flow from the experience. How do we treat ecstasy as a social fact?

However, much of the literature has been devoted to trance and possession, and discusses issues of the use of possession as a tool for rebellion, for power etc. who is possessed, and what do they gain from it?

Lewis divides his discussion into what he calls “central morality religions” where often peripheral possession cults are seen where it is not included in the central religion. In his discussion of other cosmological systems, he mentions one example that resonates with the case of the Naked men and exorcism of bad fortune are those of the Akawaio (and pre-colonial Eskimo and Tungus). Here, “the powers of the cosmos are not neatly arrayed in two opposing ranks, the one beneficient and compassionate, the other malevolent and threatening. On the contrary, all the mystical forces which man acknowledges are felt to be equally ambivalent in character. They can do good, but they can also do great harm. Here the crucial distinction between what constitutes authentic shamanistic ecstasy, and what is merely an undesirable spirit intrusion, ultimately depends on the ability of the victim to “master” his affliction.” (Lewis 1971). Perhaps in an ambiguous, ambivalent world, Japanese need to “master” affliction.

The transition period inside the Van Gennep’s 3-part rites of passage – the liminal stage – is said to be a state of communitas (Turner) – a communal bond that is born from a situation where inequalities are temporarily removed and participants share in a sense of liminality.

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“Communitas breaks through in the interstices of structure, in liminality; at the edge of structure, in inferiority. It is almost every held to be sacred, or “holy”, possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structured and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency…” Turner (1991).

Turner goes on to say that the experience inherent in liminality “is capable of moving people at many psycho-biological levels simultaneously.”

Making sense of the Naked Man Festival

The body and ecstasy in the festival:

When asked why he did it, a former holy man says: “I volunteered to do it because I wanted to serve the gods and to uphold tradition.”

But he is really moved when he is talking about the sheer terror and violence of it:

“Once you are inside the circle of bodyguards, you are playing the role of holy man and you forget the heat and fear once it has begun. And there are no words to say how happy you feel when you accomplish the role.”

The Holy Men experience something that is on the edge of terror.

“Well, I was young and a bit thoughtless, so I had wanted to do it for a long time. I was not that scared: it is once you experience the festival that you know how scary it is…when I was approaching the last gate into the shrine, I did realize my limitations, and then I got really scared, and it really sunk in that I was taking on a very challenging role….I was terrified when I sensed the incredible power of the naked guys attacking me. The naked men were pushing me the most as I passed the last gate, the narrowest point to be passed…that was the hardest moment and I really felt scared because I realized that I was playing this Holy Man role at the risk of my own life.”

Another participant says:

Dan: “If you fell over, people would just trample you…it was really frightening. I almost went down once…what I can say is that it is a totally different story to just see it and to actually do it. I think I had an amazing experience. It was really great.”

Shinto religion:
Precedents for the involvement of the body in ritual. Nelson states that the body’s physical condition, actions and emotional responses serve to mobilize not only messages (in petitioning the deities) but the renewal of physical and spiritual energies including in raucous street festivals that border on anarchy (Nelson 1990).

Head priest at Inazawa in response to why the danger in the Naked Man festival:
“Well, that’s a tough question. People hold this festival for the god at the expense of their life, and that motivation generates an energy for living in the future.”

The fundamental experience for the participants was a bodily experience that ranged from fun, to a self-reported trance-like state, to ecstasy.

Naked Man festival as ritual

Psycho-social view:

Holy man: “They all stressed that this festival is a festival for men, so I got excited about really making a serious challenge as a man…because we live in such an affluent society…” (This statement implied that in an affluent society, men and women’s roles are less distinguished, and men have less chance to play a masculine role). “Well, physically speaking, it is a bit difficult to show masculinity. I found this festival helps me to feel my masculinity in a psychological sense.”

Social solidarity:

Holy man: “I have started to become aware of the long history of the shrine and the tradition that has been handed down…even though I have only just begun to learn about how deep it is…”

Can we say that this revelry and wildness is to set up a contrast to correct social behaviour? It is true that delinquents are often introduced to correct social behaviour through the medium of the festival.

Former Holy man:
“Once, when I was one of the naked men, everyone around us was trying to get to the Holy Man, including us. There was a policeman trying to keep us back and behind a certain line, with his police baton…when we tried to get through the police officers line, one of the policemen hit me on the head with the police baton. When I realized I was bleeding, I lost my temper and picked him up and dunked him! I remember there were around 7 large water tanks holding water that is used to throw over the naked men to try and keep them away from overcrowding the Holy Man. When I attempted to dunk the police officer in the tank, a lot of the crowd joined in and helped me!”

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The same former holy man continues:
“Before I got involved with the Shrine, I was quite badly behaved. But after playing the Holy Man, because I got so much support from so many people here, I really changed. I felt more and more how much I wanted to contribute to the festival.”

“I used to be very spoiled before I became involved with the Shrine…the strict traditions made me grow up. If I had not been involved in the shrine, I might have continued to be spoiled and never thought about contributing to society. That’s how I feel about it now.”

Rites of passage: For the Holy Man, it is like a ritual of like a ritual of apprenticeship where he is stripped, shaved, cleaned, cleansed from the inside through diet, in order to be reshaped in a new role.

Ritual of exorcism of affliction.

The introduction of the stranger into the Naked man festival is part of a liminal period in the festival. “What lies outside (normal society) is the realm of the unfamiliar and the sacred. Strangers come from the outside, unknown (sacred)…The stranger is anomalous, neither insider nor outsider, and has the potential to bless or to threaten due to his or her ambiguous status.” (Bowie 2000)

In the end, the Holy Man is a sacrificial victim. As Girard (1977) says, “In many rituals the sacrifical act assumes two opposing aspects: appearing at times as a sacred obligation to be neglected at grave peril, at other times as a sort of criminal activity entailing perils of equal gravity.”
Hubert and Mauss (1968) deduced that it is because the victim is sacred that he can be killed, but equally he is only sacred because he has been offered up to be killed.

Girard sees ritual sacrifice as “society seeking to deflect upon a relatively indifferent victim, a “a sacrificeable” victim, the violence that would otherwise be vented on its own members, the people it most desires to protect” (Girard 1992). The community offers up a substitute for itself to protect itself from its own violence, and with the purpose of restoring harmony, and reinforcing social solidarity.

Moore (1994) points out that in societies where masculinity rests on control and power, and is inherently more vulnerable than femininity, and where there is a dominant idea of superiority of men over women as in most societies, masculine values are reasserted by deflecting violence onto weaker victims.

Girard looks at sacrifice as intricately related to violence. Violence is undeniable and inherently present, but it can be deflected. Open violence is an intolerable threat to society, but expressing it in ritual through sacrifice defects and contains it. “The function of ritual is to “purify” violence; that is, to “trick” violence into spending itself on victims whose death will provoke no reprisals.” (Girard 1977).

Girard further points out that for ritual violence to be effective, it must resemble non-sacrificial violence as closely as possible. This is why some rituals seem like senseless violence, or “senseless inversions of prohibited acts.”

The drunkenness anarchy is necessary to raise the participants to heightened consciousness, and to encourage their sense of violence, in this view.

I follow Van Gennep in seeing ritual as holding the potential to transform people and situations and it is in this that rituals hold their power. “Because rituals are performed, sometimes in terrifying circumstances, the messages that they carry act at a psychobiological level that includes but exceeds the rational mind.”

Within this framework, the ritual then acts to reorganize and communicate ideological messages concerning the nature of the individual, society and the cosmos (Bowie 2000).

In Bourdieu’s terms: oppositions set up that reverberate through the festival and relate back to the way society should be, are purity and pollution, male and female, insider and outsider, safe and in danger, sober and drunk, strong and weak.

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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