Remember the popular scene in The Last Samurai where Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise make sweet, tender love? You don’t? Well, perhaps if the story had been more rooted in reality we could have seen that happen.
As it turns out, pre-modern Japan was exceptionally accepting, even encouraging, of male homosexuality and bisexuality. Much like that time we found out that bushido is actually modern-day made-up bullshit, this might surprise you. To be honest, it surprised me, too. I came upon this information while researching an article (still to come) about the current state of the LGBT community in Japan. I wanted to understand the overwhelming societal pressure placed upon people who are LGBT to, well, not be. My hypothesis was that I would find my answers in Japan’s ancient and medieval past, assuming that Japan would be like the West in this regard. I would point to the Japanese version of Judeo-Christian anti-homosexuality beliefs and call it a day. I thought it would be easy.
As is often the case, it turns out I was completely wrong. Japan’s pre-modern society was one that not only tolerated homosexuality and bisexuality, but celebrated and even idealized it. In fact, it appeared to be the rule, rather than the exception, for a majority of Japan’s pre-modern history. How in the world did Japan go from celebrating homosexual lifestyles to being in denial about LGBT issues even existing?
To understand that, we must traverse the annals of history. Let’s go back to the very beginning, right at the moment when Japan was created by the gods.
Sex, And The Creation Of Japan
Japan’s first main religion, Shintoism, is said to have been established as far back as 1,000 BC. Its first known texts, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan), were completed in 712 AD and 720 AD, respectively. Both relate the creation myth of Japan. In addition to this, the Nihon Shoki records some of Japan’s early history.
Nothing in the Kojiki or Nihon Shoki mention anything about homosexuality, unless you count the fact that the first three generations of deities described in the Nihon Shoki are all male (one Tokugawa-era author joked that the conception and birthing of these generations must have been logistically difficult). But, maybe this is the point. There is no overt approval of homosexual behavior, but there is no condemnation, either.
Let’s step back a moment, however, and think about what the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki say about sex. The basic question we’re faced with is: does Shintoism view sex as inherently good or inherently evil? Part of the answer lies in the Kojiki—here’s an excerpt in which the deities Izanagi and Izanami create the islands of Japan by, well, totally doing it.
At this time Izanagi-no-Mikoto asked his spouse Izanami-no-Mikoto, saying: “How is your body formed?”
She replied, saying: “My body, formed though it be formed, has one place which is formed insufficiently.”
Then Izanagi-no-Mikoto said: “My body, formed though it be formed, has one place which is formed to excess. Therefore, I would like to take that place in my body which is formed to excess and insert it into that place in your body which is formed insufficiently, and thus give birth to the land. How would this be?”
Izanami-no-Mikoto replied, saying: “That will be good.”
In the Shinto creation story, sex proceeds the birth of a nation and her people. In Judeo-Christian religions, the acknowledgement of human sexuality and their banishment went hand in hand. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that nearly every mention of the word “sex” in the Christian bible is accompanied by ideas of punishment or shame.
I’m not saying that one religion is better than the other, or that either is “right” or “wrong”. I’m simply trying to give you context for what’s to come. Much like the ancient Judeo-Christian religions in the West, Shintoism provided the basis for the belief system in Japan, even as the religion evolved and was influenced by other groups and societies.
So, as you might have guessed, Shintoism was quite sex-positive in general. Only, there was the nagging concept of sexual “pollution” (not entirely analogous to the Christian idea of “sin”), which Pflugfelder, author of Cartographies of desire: male–male sexuality in Japanese discourse, describes below:
While male-female coitus was seen as inherently defiling, obliging those (and in particular males) who had engaged in it to undergo purification before entering in the presence of the gods, Shinto authorities did not so characterize male-male sexual practices, showing far less preoccupation with the theological implications of such behavior than their European counterparts. No explicit condemnation of male-male sexuality appears in the Shinto canon, which in fact remains silent on the topic altogether.
This difference in the perception of male-male sexuality versus male-female sexuality, in addition to Shintoism’s general message that “all sexual love is unconditional good,” helps to set the tone (on this issue) for Japan’s second main religion, Buddhism.
The Introduction of Buddhism
Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 7th century, well over a thousand years after Shintoism had taken root. In theory, traditional Buddhism viewed sex very differently from Shintoism. Sex in Buddhism was linked to desire, something that practicing Buddhists were supposed to overcome. By doing this successfully, one could gain enlightenment and thus escape from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Buddhist monks and priests were also supposed to take vows of celibacy. This, of course, included both heterosexual and homosexual activity. That being said, there were definite ideas about which was worse. Heterosexual activity was actually the greater offense, as Buddhism considered women to be “evil and defiling” by nature. Homosexual activity amongst practicing Buddhists, on the other hand, was treated more like a “lapse in self control.” Take this Vinaya (a regulatory framework for the monastic community of Buddhism, created by the Buddha himself) for example:
At that time the venerable Upananda, of the Sakya tribe, had two novices, Kandaka and Makhaka; these committed sodomy with each other. The Bhikkus were annoyed…: “How can novices abandon themselves to such bad conduct?”
They told this to the Blessed One… [who declared] “Let no one, O Bhikkus, ordain two novices. He who does is guilty of a dukkata offense.”
Gary Leupp, in Male Colors, The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan, explains:
Here their sexual involvement is seen as the result of their environment; perhaps they share a cell with the monk who ordained them. Although their behavior is plainly regarded as “bad conduct,” they are apparently not punished for it. Rather, the monk responsible for them is censured.
Once again, let’s compare this to Judeo-Christian beliefs, where the hierarchy of “bad sex things” is the opposite way around. Christian priests weren’t supposed to partake in heterosexual activity, but male-male sex was a crime for which one could be severely punished. In Buddhism, male-male sex only resulted in a slap on the wrist. Kind of a “Hey, it happens to the best of us, don’t worry about it guys!” sort of thing. Leupp continues:
Only the holiest and most disciplined of Buddhist priests were thought capable of overcoming sexual desire and faithfully observing the Buddha’s command to abjure all sexual activity. The rest of the clergy, it was widely assumed, would yield to temptation with male or female partners.
Basically, the attitude was one of “If you can’t figure out the whole celibacy thing in this lifetime, well, there’s always the next one!” Ascension to nirvana is much less of a one-time shot than admittance into heaven, after all.
I should clarify that I’m speaking about Japanese Buddhism for the purposes of this article. Some Indian and Chinese Buddhist sects had radically different ideas about the nature of sex and homosexual relationships, but they were far enough away that they had little to little to no impact on thinking in Japan.
So were there any actual rules about sex in Japanese Buddhism? Well… kind of. The “five training principles” of Buddhism do include a section on sexual conduct, but the wording of that section is incredibly vague:
“I take the rule of training not to go the wrong way for sexual pleasure.”
On the subject of this principle, Dharmachari Jñanavira, author of Homosexuality in the Japanese Buddhist Tradition, argues, “[u]nlike the Christian penitentials of the medieval period, Buddhist texts do not go into great detail explicating exactly what the ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ ways regarding sexual pleasure actually are. As with other actions, they are subject to the application of the golden mean: ‘[t]he deed which causes remorse afterward and results in weeping is ill-done. The deed which causes no remorse afterwards and results in joy and happiness is well done.’”
I’d like to think that the world might be a better place if everyone lived by this rule.
It took only a century or two for Japanese Buddhism to start developing its own sexual identity. Take the Tachikawa-ryu branch of Shingon Buddhism—later known as the “the main sex cult of Japan”—as an example. Their Tantra included the idea that “the loss of self in the sex act could lead to an awakening of the spirit.” Essentially, sex could actually help move a person toward enlightenment. For Tachikawa-ryu Buddhists, sex not only became a religious symbol, it was also “viewed as good in itself apart from its role in procreation.” That’s a big deal—if your religion doesn’t really care about whether you’re making babies, then it’s going to care less about whether or not you’re having the kind of relationships were procreation is even impossible.
Now, coming from a heteronormative society, you might expect that these teachings were accompanied by imagery that involved men putting their “excess” into women’s “insufficiency”, but that was not the case. As Jñanavira puts it:
Although present, Tantric sexual imagery which involved the unification of male and female was of marginal influence in Japan. Far more pervasive in male Buddhist institutions was the influence of homoerotic and even homosexual imagery where beautiful acolytes were understood to embody the feminine principle. The degree to which Buddhism tolerated same-sex sexual activity even among its ordained practitioners is clear from the popular myth that the founder of the Shingon school, Kooboo Daishi (Kuukai), introduced homosexual acts upon his return from study in China in the early ninth century. This myth was so well known that even the Portuguese traveller, Gaspar Vilela had heard it. Writing in 1571, he complains of the addiction of the monks of Mt. Hiei to “sodomy”, and attributes its introduction to Japan to Kuukai, the founder of Koyasan, the Shingon headquarters. Jesuit records of the Catholic mission to Japan are full of rants about the ubiquity of pederastic passion among the Buddhist clergy. What particularly riled the missionaries was the widespread acceptance these practices met with among the general populace.
As the last sentence indicates, the homosexual activities of Buddhist monks weren’t a sex cult secret. In fact, they were very public, and the Japanese people of that time didn’t care. It made visiting westerners pretty upset, though.
Father Francis Cabral noted in a letter written in 1596 that “abominations of the flesh” and “vicious habits” were “regarded in Japan as quite honorable; men of standing entrust their sons to the bonzes to be instructed in such things, and at the same time to serve their lust”. Another Jesuit commented that “this evil” was “so public” that the people “are neither depressed nor horrified” suggesting that same-sex love among the clergy was not considered remarkable.
So how did this widespread acceptance of homosexuality—so much so that one could argue that, at that time, gay culture and Buddhism were deeply intertwined—come about? There are several possibilities, but I found the two below most plausible:
The Isolation Of Monasteries
Although Japan was small in comparison to its Buddhist neighbors, it had a lot of monasteries. Leupp says there may have been upward of 90,000 Buddhist establishments during the medieval period of 1185-1572. Most of these were small, but a handful contained a thousand or more monks and monks-in-training, all of them male. Mt. Hiei alone had a population of 3,000, and all of them were expected to stay on the mountain, isolated, for 12 years. That’s a long time to be surrounded exclusively by men. This isolation likely encouraged the openness and growth of homosexual culture amongst Buddhist monks and priests.
They Were Looking Up To China
Remember Kuukai, the man blamed by all those western visitors for Japan’s homosexuality “problem”? There may be some truth as to his involvement. The genius monk, credited for the creation of hiragana and katakana, spent some time in China in 806 AD. There, it is said that he learned about the idea of nanshoku (男色 ) or “male colors”.
In the nanshoku tradition, an older Buddhist monk called the nenja would take on a prepubescent boy, called the chigo, as his acolyte. Both the nenja and the chigo were expected to take this relationship very seriously. Some nenja would have to draw up vows of commitment. When the chigo reached adulthood, the nanshoku relationship ended and the nenja would then be free to seek another chigo. Jñanavira goes into more detail:
“However, it must be remembered that the kind of homoerotic liaisons this text recommends take place in very specific circumstances between an adult man and an adolescent youth in the few years before he reaches manhood. Upon coming of age, any sexual element to the relationship is let go and the bond continues as a close spiritual friendship which is considered to continue beyond the confines of the present life. The metaphysical meaning of the relationship lies in both participants’ awareness of the temporality of the affair. Since the youth’s beauty lasts only a few years before fading for ever, it is considered vain to establish a relationship based only upon physical attraction. Yet, the role in which physical attraction plays in cementing the bond between the two friends is not denied; it is, in fact, considered a perfectly natural occurrence. Hence, Faure is right in pointing out that sexual relationships between monk and acolyte were not simply about ‘sex’ but constituted a ‘discourse,’ as he comments: ‘It is in Japanese Buddhism that male love became most visible and came to designate…an ideal of man (and not simply a type of act)’”
Japan followed China’s lead in many ways, and it’s likely they copied this, as well. There are certainly references to similar relationships being formed in Chinese monasteries, as well as amongst people of status—emperors included—who often kept young boys as servants and attendants. I find it hard to believe that such similar traditions developed on their own in such close geographic proximity, especially when you consider how much Japan borrowed from Chinese culture at the time.
Of course, we find the idea of these relationships upsetting now, but they were a reality of the time, so common in monasteries that no one gave them a second thought.
Now, while I will discuss nanshoku and homosexuality closely in the sections to come, I want to make it clear that homosexuality in adults was not caused by nanshoku—instead, it seems that the acceptance of homosexuality in Japan was tied to the initial apathy of the general public toward the practice, and vice versa. As such, the phenomenon bears examination.
Nanshoku and Homosexuality Amongst The Samurai
By the twelfth century, samurai had become the ruling class of Japan. Their numbers swelled from an initial 6,000 samurai in 1,200 AD to hundreds of thousands just a few centuries later. They adopted the tradition of nanshoku readily, largely due to two factors:
The samurai were known to respect the values of Buddhism. Because of this, samurai-class sons would typically be sent to monasteries to receive their education. Once there, many would enter into nanshoku with older monks. In this way, the idea of a romantic relationship between a man and a boy came to be considered normal, even optimal, amongst several generations of samurai.
During the warring states period (pre-1600s), samurai would be out on the warpath for long periods of time, surrounded almost entirely by men. Even after peace came with the Edo Era (post-1603), samurai were required to leave their home villages and live in castle cities to govern and prevent rebellion. As you might expect with this type of setup, there were far more men in these cities than women. As Saikaku Ihara wrote: “[Edo] was a city of bachelors … not unlike the monasteries of Mt. Koya.” This is a euphemistic way of describing Edo as a city with a thriving gay culture.
Wakashudō: The “Way Of Adolescent Boys”
As the samurai expanded their influence, they brought nanshoku out of the monasteries and into they cities. In their version, called wakashudō, prepubescent boys would be apprenticed to an older man. He would learn martial arts, life skills, and, if the boy agreed, be the man’s lover until he became an adult. This was formalized as a “brotherhood contract,” according to Leupp. It was considered to be an exclusive relationship, though many a drama is known to have come about due to the cheating of one party on the other.
According to Gregory Pflugfelder, author of Cartographies of desire: male–male sexuality in Japanese discourse, “the idea was that this wakashudō relationship should have a ‘mutually ennobling effect’ on the pair. They were expected to ‘assist each other in feudal duties in honor-driven obligations such as duels and vendettas. Although sex between the couple was expected to end when the boy came of age, the relationship would, ideally, develop into a lifelong bond of friendship. At the same time, sexual activity with women was not barred (for either party), and once the boy came of age, both were free to seek other wakashū lovers.”
It seems that the wakashudō relationship was “‘something both agreeable and disagreeable’ because ‘to throw away ones life [for one’s male lover] is the ultimate aim of shudō. Otherwise, it becomes something shameful. But then one has no life to give in service to one’s lord—so it is both agreeable and disagreeable.’”
Perhaps you can see from these excerpts how aspects of the “way of the samurai” were being worked into Buddhist tradition during this time. As to whether or not people actually believed in these ideals is up in the air, but there is no shortage of historical anecdotes that seem to suggest they did.
A Lot Of Writing
As wakashudō became the commonplace, we begin to see many more references to it in literature. Of course, authors tended to focus on well-known shoguns or famous warlords—Leupp compiled a list of powerful Japanese people who were known to have “beloved retainers”:
- Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo
- Shogun Ashikaga Takauji
- Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu
- Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimochi
- Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori
- Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa
- Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru
- Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu
- Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi
- Shogun Tokugawa Ienobu
- Shogun Tokugawa Ieshige
- Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu
- Shogun Tokugawa Ienari
- Hosokawa Takakuni
- Hosokawa Fujitaka
- Takeda Shingen
- Oda Nobunaga
- Toyotomi Hideyoshi
- Toyotomi Hidetsugu
- Uesugi Kenshin
- Maeda Toshiie
- Fukushima Masanori
- Ogasawara Hidemasa
- Miyamoto Musashi
(Yeah, that Miyamoto Musashi.)
There was also more general writing about nanshoku and wakashudō that didn’t center on any one political or military figure. We have records of letters between male samurai lovers, poetry, erotic tales… the list goes on and on. There was even a whole subgenre of gay literature devoted to “arguments on the relative merits of men and women”.
For example, in 1640 we see the Denbu Monogatari (The Boor’s Tale). In it, men are bathing in a river to escape the heat. They begin to debate whether the love of a boy or a woman is better. In the end (SPOILERS) the woman-loving side wins, but not before conceding that “male-male erotic pursuits are well suited to the higher circles of the warrior aristocracy”.
Another instance of this ongoing debate can be found in the mid-seventeenth century Iro Monogatari (Tale of Eros) where “an elderly arbiter, after hearing the impassioned arguments of the two sides, counsels that the wisest course is to follow both paths in moderation, thereby helping to prevent overindulgence in either.” In Nishizawa Ippuu’s 1708 Yakei Tomojamisen (Friendly Shamisen of Actors and Courtesans), as well, “a moderator ends the dispute by affirming the equal validity of both ‘ways,’ encouraging each party merely to be devout in his chosen discipline.”
One thing that struck me while reading some of the stories was the way people approached this argument. It’s as if male-male love and male-female love had nothing to do with each other—several other researchers on this topic have come to this conclusion, as well—and neither is judged as being” more acceptable”. Just because you like one doesn’t mean the other isn’t valid. Or, just because you choose one doesn’t mean you can’t participate in the other. It’s treated not much differently than comparing apples to bananas. You can like both. You can eat both. And if someone else doesn’t like bananas then that’s fine, but hopefully they’ve fully-committed themselves to apples, in that case.
Earlier, I mentioned the letters between samurai lovers. Here’s an excerpt from a love letter between Mashida Toyonoshin and Moriwaki Gonkuro, written in 1667.
I made my way at night to your distant residence a total of 327 times over the past three years. Not once did I fail to encounter trouble of some kind. To avoid detection by patrols making their nightly rounds, I disguised myself as a servant and hid my face behind my sleeve, or hobbled along with a cane and lantern dressed like a priest. No one knows the lengths I went to in order to meet you!
Talk about devotion!
There were guidebooks, too,theses on the “proper” way to engage in nanshoku and wakashudō relationships. One such guide was Saiseki (Silkworm Hatchling), written by an anonymous Buddhist monk in 1657. This manual included chapters with titles like: How People Fall in Love; On the Exchange of Glances, How to Answer the First Letter; Favorable and Unfavorable Replies, On Not Talking too Much; On Expressing Much Through Letters, On Taking One’s Leave to Return Home in the Morning, On Feeling Disgusted After One Encounter, On Serving as Nenja, When the Feeling Changes, On Bathing, On Corresponding Through a Messenger, On Wakashu Illnesses, On Various Matters of Etiquette, On Kissing, On Tissue Paper, On Purses on Bed Etiquette, On Smells, On Eyes, On Hair; On Nose Hair, etcetera. Apparently this was quite the popular seller.
Through these debates, stories, and guides, we see samurai and monks depicted as having male lovers, female lovers, boy lovers, and crossdressing lovers. Mostow, in The Gender of Wakashu and the Grammar of Desire, says it best when he concludes that “several works suggest that the most ‘envious’ situation would be to have both many [females] and many [boys].”
From the Samurai Class to the Middle Class
As I mentioned earlier, the Tokugawa Shogunate commanded that all samurai move to castle cities, lest they be stripped of their swords and class. This resulted in huge population booms in some areas. By 1700 AD, Edo had a population of over a million, making it one of the largest cities in the world. Kyoto and Osaka had nearly 400,000 people, and there were plenty of other big cities in Japan, as well. Considering that Edo had only around 60,000 people in the year 1600 AD, that’s an impressive jump. With this influx of people came a substantial need for infrastructure and labor. Peasants migrated to cities to fill this demand.
This was really the first time that there was so much interaction between the samurai and common people, and this meant that the latter group was being exposed to the ideas of nanshoku and wakashudō much more frequently than they had been before. Writing from this period indicated that they were impressed. Leupp compiled the following examples:
“Nanshoku,” according to the Nanshoku Yamaji No Tsuyu (Dew on the Mountain Path of Nanshoku, 1730), “is the flower of the military class.” The popular writer Ejima Kiseki (1667-1736) added, “Nanshoku is the pastime of the samurai. How could it be harmful to good government?” Similarly, a character in the early seventeenth century Denbu Monogatari (Tale of a Boor) argues that “it is precisely because jakudou is so refined that the daimyo from great families, and priests of high rank and office, usually favor this way.”
Wakashudō was seen as a high-class thing to do, so it’s only natural that we begin to see non-samurai emulating this behavior in big cities. Although technically of the lowest class, this trickle-down effect began with the merchants, as their wealth allowed them to take on servant boys and apprentices without worrying too much about the financial burden.
This, however, was not an option for everyone. The solution, of course, was to “rent” a lover. More from Leupp:
The commercialization of nanshoku greatly accelerated during the early Tokugawa period. The expansion of the market and the rise of the bourgeoisie produced both a vast labor market of male and female “sex workers” and a large demand for their services. […] so it witnessed a commodification not only of heterosexual pleasure but of homosexual pleasure as well.
Male prostitutes were in great demand, and their numbers grew rapidly. This meant that anyone, could simply pay for either heterosexual or homosexual sex if they so desired, samurai included. You see, as Japan entered a period of peace, training apprentices for war got to be a bother. On top of that, as the middle class grew, the samurai class became poorer, and their chigo became just another mouth to feed. It was easier for them to take their government-issued stipend to the nearest red-light district and simply pay for what they wanted, when they wanted it.
Soon, prostitution expanded out of brothels and into the theaters. Many amateur kabuki actors were actually just male prostitutes in disguise. These actors were highly sought-after by both men and women. When not on stage, they were likely in bed with a (paying) admirers. Because of this, kabuki troupes were closely associated with male prostitution.
With this, we finally reach the golden age of homosexuality in Japan, which lasted from 1650-1750 AD. Lewis Crompton, author of Homosexuality and Civilization says “it was a prosperous and ‘liberated’ age of extravagance and self-indulgence, infatuated with the refined and ephemeral beauty of the ‘floating world.'”
And boy was it.
It’s around this century that we start to see some of the most interesting writing and art on the topic of nanshoku and wakashudō. Perhaps the most famous is Ihara Saikaku’s Nanshoku Ōkagami (The Great Mirror of Male Love), written in 1687. It is a collection of 40 erotic stories, half of which are about samurai and monks, the other half about kabuki actors. To give you a taste, here are a couple of excerpts from Nanshoku Ōkagami.
When the woman woke in the morning, they were both silent, lying in the same bed. She called her son: “Rise up, lazy boy!” But there was no answer. She went into the room and turned back the blanket which covered them, and saw that Shinosuke had pierced Senpatji’s heart with his sword passed through his own breast and out at his back.
His mother stood there for a long time overwhelmed at the sight of these two lovers’ bodies, and then, in her sorrow and distress, killed herself in the same room.
Fun fact: Did you know that the number one cause for revenge killings during this period was discord between two male lovers?
Then the Lord cut off his left hand and asked, “How do you feel, Korin?”
Korin held out his right hand and said, “With this hand I caressed and loved my lover. You must hate this hand a good deal also.”
The Lord at once cut that hand off. Then Korin turned his back to his master and said, “My back is very beautiful. No other page was as attractive as I am. Look at my beauty before I die.” His voice was weak and low through the mortal pain he was enduring. Then the Lord cut off his head and, holding it in his hands, wept bitter tears for the death of his favorite.
Read the whole thing yourself, if you want. Despite being fiction, it gives a lot of perspective on everything you’ve read up to now. If human civilization had ended in the 1800s and all aliens had to go on was Nanshoku Ōkagami, they’d still have a pretty accurate picture of what went on in Japan during this period.
With male-male love becoming so mainstream and accessible, wakashudō became less and less relevant. At the same time we see a sharp rise in prostitution houses with boys and male lovers. We also see chigo partners in nanshoku relationships getting older, too. As long as men retained a “youthful appearance”, they could remain prostitutes into their twenties and thirties.
Of course, this situation couldn’t last forever. After nanshoku’s peak in the early 1700s, the demand for male prostitutes begins to decline. Leupp writes:
[C]ity government crackdowns on prostitution took their toll; in each of the three great reform periods (the Kyouhou Reform, 1716-1735; Kansei Reform, 1787-1793; and Tenpou Reform, 1841-1843) urban authorities attacked commercial sex, “lewd” art and literature, and extravagance in general. In 1842 all of Edo’s teahouses were closed in the course of Mizuno Tadakuni’s reform efforts, and the kabuki theaters of Sakai-cho, Fukiya-cho, and Kobiki-cho were forced to move to a ward on the city’s outskirts, Saruwaka-cho, in a section of Edo known as Asakusa. (In Osaka, meanwhile, kabuki-troupe directors were forbidden to send out boy-actors and prostitutes.) Homosexual prostitution was not the main target of this movement, and, like most elements in Mizuno’s reform package, the ban does not seem to have been wholly effective.
These crackdowns made it more difficult for male prostitutes to do business. This, coupled with the fact that more and more women were coming to the cities—by the Meiji Era the ratio of men to women was nearly even—signaled a marked decline in open male-male sexual activity. Then, in 1859, Japan opens its ports to foreigners, and things change even more drastically.
The shift from homosexual acceptance to homosexual condemnation happened in-step with the Meiji Restoration, foreign influence being a key factor. The ruling elite of this time agreed that they must emulate the West as much as possible. In doing so, they hoped to avoid the fate of China and India, modernize, and become equals with the Western powers.
As you now know, homosexuality was extremely common and open at this time. Plus, there was much popular writing, not to mention (very) lewd art, being circulated too. None of this was a secret.
With the opening of Japan this became a big topic. Newspapers both in Japan and abroad called for the criminalization of male-male relationships. The ruling elite soon agreed, announcing that “same-sex love was ‘unnatural’.”
Opinions like this certainly helped facilitate Japan’s transition into a more homophobic stance. But, they wasn’t the only cause. Leupp writes:
“Thus, Western cultural influence was a major factor in the decline of the nanshoku tradition. But surely this decline also reflects the collapse of the feudal structure that had shaped the development of male homosexuality in Japan. As we have seen, Japan’s nanshoku tradition was not unique in dignifying both partners in role-structure homosexual relationships; […] Such relationships were rooted in, and mirrored, the lord-retainer bond. Even male prostitutes developed in ways that reflected feudal values and institutions. With the fall of the feudal order, these values and institutions were for the most part either weakened or eradicated.”
Values at this time shifted rapidly, with gay culture being increasingly pushed to the fringes of society.
“Nanshoku rapidly moved from the center stage of popular culture to its margins. Homosexual desire was no longer celebrated in literature, theater, and art; rather, it was discouraged as one of the ‘evil customs’ of the past, a national embarrassment given attitudes in the modern West. The concept of of nanshoku-zuki gave way to the German concept of the urning—one suffering from a peculiar psychological disorder. Such an environment was less conductive to the generation of male-male sexual desire than that of Tokugawa Japan; males became less likely to experience, and even less likely to act upon, such desire.”
It seems incredible that a nation once so open to the idea of homosexuality could change its mind so quickly. It makes me wonder whether Japan could make a similar shift back in the direction of LGBT acceptance now. As I hinted at earlier, this will be the subject of an upcoming article, so stay tuned. Until then, if you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend you read my main sources for this article. They are:
- Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan
- Cartographies of Desire: Male-male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950
- Homosexuality in the Japanese Buddhist Tradition