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Men prepare to take part in the Naked Man Festival at Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, Japan. Photo: Reuters

Fewer moons at Lunar New Year as coronavirus hits Japan’s Naked Man Festival

  • Japan’s Saidaiji Eyo festival to mark Lunar New Year dates back 1,000 years and features men in loincloths jostling for talismans flung from a temple
  • Up to 10,000 men typically take part, but this year only past winners will attend a symbolic ceremony. Still, there will be a cheeky photo competition
One of the oldest – and oddest – festivals in Japan has fallen victim to the coronavirus.

Elders at the Saidaiji Kannonin Temple, in Okayama prefecture in central Japan, have opted to curtail an event that can trace its history back nearly 1,000 years and typically attracts upwards of 10,000 jostling men clad only in the “fundoshi” loincloths more commonly worn by sumo wrestlers.

The Saidaiji Eyo festival – also known as the Naked Man Festival – will be held on February 20, the temple has confirmed, but in a very different format.

“In a usual year we get more than 10,000 men taking part, but this year it was decided that it is just too dangerous to go ahead because of the coronavirus,” said Yuji Omori, a spokesman for the temple.

“Never before have we had to do anything like this and it went ahead even during the war years,” he said. “But this is different.”

Though last year’s festival was held after the outbreak of the coronavirus, the pandemic was still in its early stages and proceedings went ahead largely as normal.

The festival went ahead last year as the coronavirus outbreak was still in its early stages. Photo: Reuters
Designated by the government as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Asset and dating back to the Muromachi period, the festival started out as a Buddhist service, called “shuseikai”, to mark the Lunar New Year and to pray for peace and a good harvest.

Originally, cloth talismans were handed out to the elders of the community. Soon enough, scuffles began to break out among onlookers who wanted good fortune for themselves in the year ahead. In 1510, the chief priest of the temple decided that the talismans should be wrapped around a tablet of wood, to stop the material from tearing, and then hurled out of the upper-floor window of the temple for the crowds to scrap over.

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Worshippers quickly worked out that they were more nimble and less likely to be grabbed by a rival if they stripped down to the bare essentials and the loincloth became the preferred attire – despite the near-zero temperatures in Okayama in February.

Conscription meant that far fewer men took part during the war years, but a parallel event was created for local women, who were apparently eager participants.

Given that the event encourages thousands of semi-naked men to heave and push against each other in an effort to seize one of the talismans, organisers said it would be too dangerous to hold the festival in its traditional format this year.

Men dressed in loincloths try to snatch a talisman hurled from the Saidaiji Temple in Okayama during Japan’s Naked Man Festival. Photo: Reuters

Instead, the temple is inviting 141 winners from festivities dating back to 1989 to attend an event that will be broadcast live online and involve the talismans being passed from man to man until the head priest draws two cards from a stack bearing the names of the participants, and these will be declared the winners.


Minoru Omori, the chairman of the festival organising committee, pointed out that plague had caused the death of one-third of the population of Kyoto in the Heian period and that the festival had come to represent hope for good fortune after a prolonged spell of bad luck.

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“In discussions with the chief priest and committee members, we have reached the conclusion that we need to pray now,” he said. “These prayers will be for fertility, world peace and the elimination of the plague.”


The temple has also decided to ban all spectators and cancel the fireworks display, while the stalls selling food and trinkets that are a staple of such occasions are also being asked to stay away this year.

Given that participation will be severely limited this year, the temple is also planning to invite men who would normally attend to send in a still photograph of them wearing a loincloth and to try to set a record for the Guinness World Records for the greatest number of loincloth image posts in an hour.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Virus strips Naked Man Festival of its main attraction