INAZAWA (Japan), Feb 22 — Women officially joined a so-called “naked festival” at a shrine in central Japan on Thursday for the first time in the event’s 1,250 year history, donning purple robes and chanting excitedly as they bore a large bamboo trunk as an offering.

Seven groups of women took part in the ritual which is said to drive away evil spirits and where participants pray for happiness. Despite its name, those taking part are not naked.

Many women wore “Happi Coats” (robes that reach to the hips) and shorts that are typically worn at Japanese festivals, although men just wore loincloths similar to those worn by sumo wrestlers.

“I heard that women could participate so I definitely wanted to take part to help bring excitement to this town and festival,” said 59-year-old civil servant Emi Tachibana, one of the participants.

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Naruhito Tsunoda, a priest at the shrine, said there had never been a ban on women participating, and some had even made small offerings as individuals before. However, when a women’s group inquired last year if they could join, saying “yes” was easy.

“I believe the most important thing is for there to be a fun festival for everyone. I think God would be happiest about that too,” he said.

The women did not join the festival’s main event where a large group of men clash together to drive away evil spirits. Tsunoda said it would be difficult to open up that part of the festival to women due to the physical aspect.

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Japan’s government last year said it would push to improve women’s participation in society, after an annual report showed the country was struggling to narrow the gender gap.

The World Economic Forum report measuring gender parity ranked Japan 125th out of 146 countries in 2023, down from 116th in 2022. — Reuters