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Women’s participation in ‘naked festival’ a sign of how aging is forcing changes to male-centric Japanese traditions

Tokyo/Hong Kong CNN —

With a history spanning more than 1,200 years, “hadaka matsuri,” or the naked festival, is Japanese masculinity on full display. Quite literally.

Across Japan, in freezing winter, thousands of men strip naked — except for a delicate piece of crotch-covering white loincloth — to jostle around their local shrines. Each participant tries to get as close as possible to a man playing the role of “shin-otoko,” a god-man who wards off bad luck.

On one hand, the ritual illustrates Japan’s steadfast respect for tradition and cultural heritage. But on the other, its insistence on excluding women — only men are considered pure in the traditional Japanese culture — bears all the hallmarks of one of the country’s greatest modern struggles: gender inequality.

To this day, men hold the country’s highest offices and most of the top jobs at prestigious private firms.

Last year, the World Economic Forum ranked Japan 125th in its Global Gender Gap Index report, far below other G7 countries such as Germany, Britain and the United States. It was just a few spots ahead of India and Saudi Arabia — both notoriously poor performers on gender equality.

Some women in Japan still battle deep-rooted cultural expectations that require them to take the role of “shufu,” or housewife, experts say. Meanwhile, the country’s painstakingly long work hours and male-centric institutional culture conspire further against women who are already burdened disproportionately by more family duties than men.

But in the naked festival, women have recently found hope. Even the country’s most entrenched male-centric tradition was recently subverted by another wrinkle in the national fabric: a shrinking population.

Men strip naked — except