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Torch relay on traditional 'men-only' boat in central Japan sets sail with women aboard

The Tokyo Olympic torch is seen being carried on a boat normally used in a traditional festival that excludes women from riding, in the city of Handa, Aichi Prefecture, on April 6, 2021. (Mainichi/Koji Hyodo)

HANDA, Aichi -- A controversial section of the Tokyo Olympic torch relay taking place on a traditional boat that women are excluded from boarding went ahead in this central Japan city without gender restrictions on April 6, after organizers changed plans to keep it men-only amid backlash over its inconsistency with the Olympic Charter.

    The "men only" boat is used in the city of Handa's Chintoro Festival, which dates back to the Edo period (the 17th to 19th century) and was planned to carry a torch relay runner as a way to promote the festival.

    On the morning of April 6, Taishin Hirano, 26, a member of all-male pop group "Magic Prince," rode the boat as a torch relay runner while about 30 locals, including three women, were on board to recreate the festival.

    The Handa Municipal Government originally planned to limit boarding of the boat for the torch relay to men, because women have traditionally not been allowed to ride the sacred vessel during the festival, and the Olympic torch relay task force in Aichi Prefecture approved the local government's request. However, criticism including "They don't understand that the Olympic Charter calls for equality of the sexes" was raised, leading the city government to treat the use of the boat as part of an "event" rather than the "festival," thereby allowing women on the boat.

    The torch relay passed through an about 200-meter section of the Handa Canal. Honoka Sakakibara, 6, a local girl suddenly added to the boarding list, smiled, saying, "It was fun." Her father Masao, 36, said, "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so it became a good memory to ride it with my daughter."

    Tatsumi Shiraiwa, 69, who serves as a consultant for the festival, said, "It was an event this time, but brought about a good opportunity to think about letting women board in the Shinto ritual festival in future."

    (Japanese original by Shinichiro Kawase, Nagoya News Center)

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