The September 26th issue of Jinja Shinpō included a short article from Kanzaki Noritakë, a priest and folklorist who writes regularly for the “Mori ni Omofu” (“Thoughts in the Forest”) column. His columns are always interesting, and this was no exception.
It was about Konsei-sama, also known as Konsei-kami (or Konsei-no-kami), Konsei Daimyōjin, Kinmaro-sama, Kanamaro-sama, or Kanamara-sama. There are signs of the veneration of Konsei-sama all across Japan, and the practice survives widely today, particularly, he says, in the area of Okayama Prefecture where he lives — he was able to confirm eleven locations. Some of them were simply nestled in the roots of trees, but others had a small shrine structure. Two of them, up in the mountains, had vertical flags with “Konsei Daimyōjin” written on them. None of these locations are registered with the local Jinjachō — they are the object of purely folk veneration.
The notable thing about Konsei-sama is that the goshintai is normally visible, which is unusual for Shinto, and is always a large image of a penis.
This is also thought to be unusual for Shinto.
A myth to explain the origin of this practice has been recorded from the Edo period (around the 18th century), from Tsugaru in the very north of the main island of Japan.
“A long time ago, there was a chieftain in this land. He and his wife had a single daughter, and she grew to be the most beautiful and elegant woman that anyone had ever seen. All the young men from round about competed to marry her, but when she accepted one as her husband, he died on the wedding night. This did not dissuade the others, but every husband either died or fled on the first night. At length, it was discovered that her vagina was fanged, and her husbands were either badly wounded or had their penises eaten. A penis was made of black iron, which could not be bitten, and afterwards this was venerated as a symbol of male potency.”
So-called “vagina dentata” myths are, apparently, not uncommon, and are generally thought to arise from male insecurity — which seems extremely plausible. However, this myth is not really the origin of the Konsei-sama cult, at least according to Kanzaki.
In Edo period Japan, STDs, particularly syphilis, were extremely common, to the extent that the first westerners to arrive in the mid-nineteenth century commented on it. Japanese doctors of the period had no way to treat them, and recommended praying to the kami, although that was also not terribly effective. This was the origin of the Konsei-sama cult, which was particularly common near red-light districts. Indeed, there is still a survival in contemporary Kawasaki, at Wakamiya Hachimangū, which I visited about ten years ago.
One of the reasons that it is less common today is that Jinja Honchō does not want to encourage the veneration of giant penises, because people, both Japanese and foreign, giggle and make silly jokes. Another is that modern Japanese medicine is a lot better at treating STDs.
A third reason may be connected to something that I suspect may be part of the reason why STDs were so common. Pre-Meiji Japanese sexual ethics did not include the idea that it was wrong to have sex with multiple people. Powerful men had many wives as a matter of course, and courtesans were popular, and had as many clients as they could attract and handle. It was also normal for respectable women to have several lovers over the course of their lives, although concern for the paternity of children meant that married women were not supposed to have affairs — the double standard still existed. (And they still had affairs, of course.) This sort of culture would both make it easy for STDs to spread, and mean that it was not embarrassing to go and pray to a giant penis for protection from them.
Contemporary Japanese sexual ethics are not quite the same.