Circumcision in the Pacific

"Skinsize" in Paradise

Circumcision customs vary widely across the Pacific

In Tonga, Samoa, Niue and Tikopia, it is a source of shame not to be circumcised: women will not look at a man with a foreskin, because he is "not a real man." An intact acquaintance was swimming with a chief in a lagoon in Tonga, and the chief kindly offered to fix him up. My friend politely declined.

Public hospitals in New Zealand will no longer circumcise boys on request, but a doctor told me that when they refuse, Polynesian families sometimes threaten to do it themselves, and then they feel that for them to do it antiseptically is the lesser evil.

A Samoan artist in New Zealand, Tony Schuster, has painted a picture called "Circumcision" that cites Acts 15 1 as a reason for Samoans to circumcise "from seven years and up", when in fact the story goes on to say why Christians need not do so.

The Polynesian island where the custom is best documented, and perhaps most important, is Tikopia. Tikopia is a tiny island in Western Polynesia, so far west that it is governed by Solomon Islands, which are in Melanesia.

Anthropologist Raymond Firth has fully documented how boys on the brink of puberty are incised in groups by their mothers' brothers, and then feasted and toured around the island as men. It is important that it not be done too late (too near puberty) or a boy will be shamed; boys who have cut penises will not let uncut boys play with them. A visiting teacher was uncut, and if his children misbehaved, they were cursed with "Go and incise your father!" Firth says it is not a puberty rite, but a maturity rite. But the fact that it is done on the penis suggests that a connection with puberty can not be far away: it would make puberty seem to come under human control.

It is said of a boy who has been incised, "His oven has been kindled," (referring to the cooking of food for the feasting that follows) and he is then allowed to take a man's rôle at ceremonies. The ceremony and the exchange of gifts that surround it are very important in cementing Tikopian society together. As Firth says, "The actual operation occupies only about two minutes; the handling of food and valuables attendant upon it may take five days or more, and the preparation of them many months of work."

Tikopians are not circumcised, but superincised. That is, a single cut is made from front to back on the top of the foreskin. Because it is done before the penis grows, the skin pulls back, giving an appearance similar to true circumcision.

Unlike the custom of some other cultures, the Tikopian boy is treated sympathetically through his ordeal and given every encouragement to endure it stoically. He is cradled in the arms of one of his uncles, while another does the cutting and the whole family crowds around. Special songs (laments) are sung, sympathising with the boy's pain, and the uncle who does it is under enormous social pressure to do it properly. He usually trembles from the tension, and if he doesn't seem to know what he is doing, he will quickly be replaced. A flat stick is pushed under the foreskin to protect the glans. Before the arrival of the European the cut was made with a sharp stone, later a razor-blade. A friend of mine with access to medical supplies was called on to supply scalpels for the ceremonies.


On Ra'ivavae in the Austral Islands (700 kilometers from Tahiti), the boys superincise themselves (ouch!) alone. The custom is similar in the Philippines, and one shudders to think of the possibilities of misunderstanding and accident, but presumably they know what the result should look like. On the tiny island of Niue, it is done about the age of eight and, as on Tikopia, it is a big occasion. In Fiji, it is a custom of puberty.

One of the most famous images of the Cook Islands is of the sea-god Tangaroa, with a large, apparently circumcised penis. (It even appears on coins) But a Cook Islander tells me that circumcision is not traditional (they have recently taken it up from Westerners on some islands).

Aotearoa / New Zealand
The New Zealand Mäori have traditionally left the foreskins on their sons, and it was being tehe - with glans showing - that was a source of shame. (Tehe is pronounced like "ten-hen" without the n's.) One traditional story has it that a man divorced his wife because she mentioned seeing him tehe. Medical/missionary circumucision did catch on this century in one tribal region, Waikato.

Maori meeting houses are lined with rows of large wooden carvings of ancestors, elaborately stylized. Those that show the ancestors' penises - those that escaped the missionaries' chisels - show them as tehe. This is probably not because they were circumcised, but because they have erections, and that is the more tapu (sacred) condition, appropriate to ancestors.

The i-Kiribati (Gilbertese) circumcise, but the other Micronesian islands, the Marianas, Carolines and Marshalls, are so widely scattered that the custom probably also varies widely.


For most of Solomon Islands, men are intact. One told me he was not "skinsize".

At one stage, circumcision showed signs of becoming fashionable among adolescent boys in the Solomons "because the Araikwao (white man) does it." No better reason was given, and the churches, so powerful in most South Pacific countries, were silent.

A variety of methods are used in those regions where it is done. One is called in Pijin, "fo-kona" ("four corner") where four fore-to-aft cuts are made, on top, bottom and sides. Again, if that is done before puberty the outcome will look similar to conventional circumcision.

But perhaps the most bizarre method is that practised in parts of the Western Solomons. A cut is made across the top of the foreskin at the back, and the glans is threaded up through it. As the penis grows, one imagines, it becomes impossible to unthread it. The foreskin then forms a little wrinkled bunch under the glans, about the size of a pea. This is, of course, thought to improve heterosexual intercourse (though women might appreciate it more if the bunch were on top where it could reach the "G-spot"). Again, since everything is still there, this is probably preferable to cutting anything right off.

Circumcision is a custom in at least parts of Vanuatu.

now has its own page.

According to Japanese doctors, circumcision is rare in Japan. One gives a figure of three percent. Some Japanese towns celebrate "Penis Day" in which a large wooden phallus, erect but obviously intact, is carried through the town. However (the reverse of classical Greece or the Maori of New Zealand) it is bad manners (kawa kamuri ??? ? "excess skin") to leave the foreskin forward when it might be seen, in the bathhouse or at a medical exam. Some doctors are advertising circumcision, especially to young men, as a means of avoiding kawa kamuri but the rate of uptake is unknown. (Little reliable information is available in English.)

Under USAmerican influence, boyhood circumcision has become almost universal in South Korea since the 1950s. It remains unknown in the North.

the Philippines
Formerly, boys aged 7-10 were superincised by an amateur. The origins of the custom are obscure, but it has been replaced by boyhood surgical circumcision, apparently without being questioned. Another page looks at the Philippine "operation tuli".


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