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Foreskins and Circumcision in Japan.

Mount Fuji
Mount Fuji, courtesy TravelQuest (UK)

Past and Present

The anthropologist Felix Bryk reported that the Ainu, the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan, practised circumcision. In his time, early 20th century, he records that they still did so on some or the more remote islands. The Ainu, who were rather more hirsute than their conquerors, were largely displaced by invaders of Korean descent who did not circumcise. (There is a double irony here - present-day Japanese look down upon Koreans even though they themselves are actually Korean by ancestry, and also present-day Korean men and boys are circumcised!)

Bryk also described how Japanese men wear their foreskins retracted. The public bath is an important social institution in Japan, and a man whose foreskin slips forward will always pull it back again. Conversations on the old Circlist mailing list confirmed that this is still current practice. One young man, then 23, sent in this photograph of his own penis with foreskin which was always kept back. (He would be in his 40s now but I'm sure his foreskin hasn't ever been forward in that time.)

The practice is also common in other East Asian countries - two Thai men have told me the same thing. One, a close friend, retracted his foreskin just once, at age 10, and it has stayed back ever since.

The degree of distaste for the 'covered penis' in Japan is rather charmingly shown in this delightful little manga comic. (The images have been arranged here to run from left to right, Western style, rather that right to left as in the original.)

If anyone can translate the Japanese please contact us.

One might think that people who couldn't easily keep their foreskin back would be lining up to get circumcised, but there is a problem - it is, essentially, thought of as cheating. So the circumcision has to be invisible. One approach is to do a totally low circumcision, so that the scar is in the sulcus. If the cut is moderately loose, it will be undetectable on the flaccid penis. Such a technique is common enough in the West.

But the Japanese have also developed an alternative where skin is only removed from the shaft and the scar is right at the base of the penis where pubic hair makes it totally undetectable. There is a problem, of course, if there is a true phimosis and in this case the phimotic ring must be divided by an incision. However this is done on the ventral side of the penis and so is also invisible when the organ is flaccid. The diagram at right, from Ohjimi et al. 1995 shows the cuts involved (in this case also including frenulum removal).

The cultural issues involved make it pretty much impossible to estimate the true incidence of circumcision in Japan. Infant circumcision is rare, and a figure of 3% for adults is frequently quoted. However there are many clinics advertising 'phimosis surgery' and it is hard to see how they would stay in business on such a low rate. It must be said, too, that many of these are cowboy operations, as revealed in this article from Japan Today They take advantage of young men who, in the prevailing cultural norms, have nobody they can talk to about foreskin problems.



Bryk F., 1934 Circumcision in Man and Woman. (tr. Felix Berger). New York: American Ethnological Press: 342 pp. (Facsimile reprint New York: AMS Press, 1974).

Ohjimi T. & H. Ohjimi. 1981. Special surgical techniques for the relief of phimosis. J. Dermatol. Surg. Oncol. 7, 326-330
Ohjimi H, K. Ogata & T. Ohjimi, 1995. A new method for the relief of adult phimosis. J Urol 153, 1607-1609. full text

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