Unfortunately, I have no photographic record of the most remarkable
performance I saw in the summer of 1976. This was not in Tokyo, which
had stricter laws about entertainments than other cities, possibly as a
result of having to look respectable for the Olympics in 1964. The Toji
Deluxe theatre was in Kyoto. It was behind the main railway station and
near the old designated area for burakumin, outcasts who did the
unclean work connected with death: butchering, tanning, meat packing,
or, in the old days, executing prisoners. The Toji’s flashing neon
lights were the only bright spot in an otherwise dark street.

Inside, in the middle of a barnlike space, was a round, slowly revolving
stage, with men sitting in rows waiting for the action to start. Tsuda
and I were in the second row. Precisely on time, the theatre went dark
and a soft pink light suffused the stage. A man in a shiny,
electric-blue suit and purple bow tie appeared with a chrome microphone
and welcomed us to the show. The performers, introduced by name,
shuffled onto the stage carrying plastic picnic hampers covered with
bits of cloth. I saw one of them, as she made her entrance, hand a baby
to a stagehand. Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” issued forth
from the scratchy sound system.

The women, dressed in negligees, made a bow. Then they crouched down,
removed the cloth from their baskets, and carefully laid out various
props on the edge of the stage: vibrators of different sizes, in pink,
yellow, and violet, as well as cucumbers, and condoms wrapped in colored
cellophane packages. Everything was done with the utmost decorum, the
props placed in neat little rows, “Strangers in the Night” still
playing.

They stood up and adopted a number of suggestive poses, their faces as
masklike as Noh dancers or Bunraku puppets. The men in the audience were
a mixture of old and young, some dressed in suits and ties, some dressed
like students. On the revolving stage, a few of the girls broke into
friendly smiles and slowly made their way to the edge, where the condoms
and other props were laid out. One or two picked up a dildo or a
cucumber and entered several transparent square boxes, which were
cranked up over our heads. An old-fashioned Japanese ballad began to
play, something about a lonely mother waiting for her son to come home.
Tsuda whispered in my ear that it was a wartime song.

“Now watch closely,” Tsuda, an old hand at these things, said. One by
one, the women onstage moved to the edge and beckoned men in the
audience to join them. Meanwhile, above us, in the transparent boxes,
women were busy inserting cucumbers and dildos into their vaginas. The
men giggled and dared one another to climb up. A thin man in a business
suit was pushed forward by his friends, but he refused, blushing and
scratching the back of his neck, the common Japanese gesture for
embarrassment. Finally, one of the students, in sneakers and training
pants, went up. He stood up straight, like a soldier on parade, staring
blankly ahead, while a woman, smiling sweetly, took off all his clothes
except for a pair of white sports socks. She expertly slipped on a
condom and lay down invitingly. “The doors of paradise are about to
open, gentlemen,” said the m.c. in the purple bow tie. Shouts of
encouragement came from the audience. The young man, without looking at
the girl, began to make vigorous movements with his hips.

Alas, the tension must have got to him. Tsuda told me that students
often save up for these occasions. The young man began to sweat; the
girl made soft cooing noises, telling him it would be O.K. But after a
last, hopeless shake of his hips, he gave up. The older men chortled.
The girl patted his back as he scrambled offstage, still in his white
socks and with his trousers pulled halfway up his thighs. Then the m.c.
made another announcement: “Honored guests, the time has come for the
tokudashi.” “The tokudashi?” I asked Tsuda. “Just wait,” he said.
The m.c., breathing heavily into his mike, said, in English, “Open.”

The men in the audience, as though waiting for this climactic moment,
moved forward, wide-eyed, as three women sitting at the very edge of the
stage leaned back on their elbows and very slowly opened their legs,
exposing themselves to the prying gaze of the audience. The m.c. handed
out magnifying glasses and small hand torches. “Please share them
around, so everyone can have a proper look,” he said. There was a deadly
hush in the theatre. No chortling or cackling now, as the women moved
sideways like crabs from man to man, each taking his turn to peer into
the female mystery with the help of torch and magnifying glass. The
women encouraged the men to take their time.

After the show, Tsuda and I had a drink in a tiny bar, and he shared his
theory about the spectacle we had witnessed. Japan, he explained, still
had vestiges of an ancient matriarchy. In Shinto, he continued, the sun
is venerated as a mother goddess, named Amaterasu. One day, according to
legend, the sun goddess retreated into a cave in a fit of anger, and the
world was cast into darkness. The other gods tried to coax her out:
roosters were made to crow, pretending it was dawn; a tree covered in
jewels and a bronze mirror was placed in front of the cave. Still,
Amaterasu didn’t stir. Then the goddess of mirth and revelry, named Ama
no Uzume, began to dance wildly on top of a wooden tub, stamping her
feet and lifting her dress to show off her private parts, whereupon the
gods burst out laughing. The sun goddess could no longer contain her
curiosity, peeked out of her hiding place, and was so taken by her
reflection in the mirror on the tree that the gods were able to drag her
out. Light came into the world once more.