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JAPAN - Jan 10, 2008

Times are changing for a millennium-old festival in provincial Japan that features naked men, with a top railway operator saying advertisements for the event were too racy. The northern city of Oshu each February draws thousands of tourists with its Somin Festival, in which naked men pile upon one another and frolic about late into the night to pray for good luck.

The city has printed posters for the festival for decades but East Japan Railway, better known as JR East, refused to put up the advertisement at train stations this year for the first time.

The poster for this year's festival on Feb 13 has a bearded middle-aged man with thick chest hair who appears to be howling. Other men, wearing only loincloths, cluster in the background.

JR East's branch in Morioka, which covers the region including Oshu, said displaying the poster could constitute sexual harassment.

"Train stations are used by a wide range of people and it is highly possible that some passengers may be offended by the poster design," said branch spokesman Kaichi Yamasaki. "The impression the poster leaves is a bit unsettling."

Kumiko Chiba, an Oshu official in charge of festival affairs, said the city initially brought the poster to JR East in November and hoped the company would take 600 as usual.

After the company asked for changes, the local government put white loincloths on all of the men who originally were naked.

"But the poster was again turned down," Chiba said. "We gave up on any more modifications due to the costs and the approaching date of the festival."

"We regret this because an advertisement at train stations can usually catch many people's attention," she said.

With JR East not specifying the complaint, the middle-aged man in the poster wondered if the real objection was to his chest hair, which is relatively rare in East Asia.

"But I don't care as it's all a matter of personal taste," the man, a 20-year veteran of the festival, told a television network.

-- Japan Today

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