Homosexuality in Feudal Japan

Hohomosexuality 3mosexual practices are an integral aspect of samurai culture that is often overlooked or dismissed in studies of the Japanese warrior classes. Getting the fundamentals out of the way first, homosexuality between men was, in most cases, acceptable and widely practiced amongst the samurai as well as other classes in feudal Japan (how’s that for destroying a few stereotypes!) The eminent author on the subject, Gary Leupp has even compiled a list of well-known figures who are recorded as having engaged in homosexual practices:

  • 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

It would be a misnomer, however, to ascribe the epithet of homosexual to any one of these men. The Japanese understanding of sexuality was not fixed as we see it today. Indeed, in 1640 we see the Denbu Monogatari in which men are bathing in a river to escape the heat. They begin to debate whether the love of a boy or a woman ihomosexuality-in-japanese-buddhisms better. In the end they conclude that heterosexual relationships are the better, “but not before conceding that male-male erotic pursuits are well suited to the higher circles of the warrior aristocracy”. In another such tale, 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 an odd contradiction, however, while sexuality was fluid, and most were free to indulge in heterosexual and homosexual relationships, such relationships followed strict rules, one such example being wakashudo, literally the way of youths. The use of the character do is the same as in Judo or Aikido and literally means way or path. The shared connotations of lifelong study and of a strict system and hierarchy that is present in the language was reflective in the nature of such relationships.

Perhaps the origin of such a stricture of form lies in the origins of the practice of nanshoku in the Buddhist monasteries of Japan. An isolated and completely male dominated environment, it is unsurprising that the practice of nanshoku flourished there. With the great advent of the samurai class in the 14th Century, many a young Samurai boy was sent to receive an education in the Buddhist monasteries and thus came into contact with the concept of nanshoku, and many were taken as chigo or acolytes by the older nenja or mentors.

Over time, the culture that was prevalent in the monasteries transplanted itself into the culture of the samurai and nanshoku transformed into wakashudo. The concept was still the same, witHomosexuality 2h an older mentor and a younger acolyte, normally in the last few years of his youth. In wakashudo particularly, there was a strict limit on the length of the relationship, and any sexual conduct between the pair would normally end “when the beauty of the youth had faded” leaving behind a strong and lasting spiritual bond.

This was ultimately the aim of the homosexual relationship in feudal Japan, the forming of this bond. In a manner that is indeed similar to Greek and Arabic examples of homosexuality, the bonds formed in the bedroom were intended to last onto the battlefield. Indeed the sengoku period, with men spending great lengths of time in each other’s company, saw the biggest explosion in homosexual relationships. This went to such an extent that the Shoninki, written not long after the end of the sengoku jidai advocates attempting to “ply someone with booze, sex, pleasure, or gambling for the purpose of taking him in and getting your way.”

Even in Masazumi’s work, however, this is qualified. “As you will be included in those pleasures, you must keep control of your mind and be sure not to lose yourself or your self-control.” While in the context of the work of the shinobi this is a practicality, a similar sentiment existed between regular lovers, that while the sexuahomosexuality 1l intimacy was good, it was important not to get lost in it, hence the restriction on how long the sexual intimacy of the relationship would continue for.

As a result of the Tokugawa shogunate’s policy which forced Samurai to gravitate towards castle towns, the homosexual culture that they had created came with them. This led Saikaku Ihara to write that “[Edo] was a city of bachelors … not unlike the monasteries of Mt. Koya.” The formalisation of education and martial training also, encouraged the wakashudo ideal of chigo-nenja relationships.

With the Meiji restoration, and the opening of Japan’s borders to the west once again, the open culture of homosexuality came under attack. The practice was condemned by the institutionally homophobic west and, in an attempt to emulate the nations that they perceived as more advanced and powerful than themselves, the Japanese adopted a pseudo-western stance of intolerance and homophobia. Despite having been an integral part of the warrior and religious culture for many years, the Japanese started to view Homosexual desire as an unnatural mental illness and a “national embarrassment” that reflected poorly on Japan as a nation.

The Japanese conception of homosexual love was a strange thing. Free and openly accepted at all strata of society, but in particular the ruling elite. However, simultaneously subject to strict rules and codes that sometimes required the participants in the relationship to sign actual documents to codify the agreement. While there are parallels to be drawn with the homosexuality we see in the Greek tradition, Japanese homosexuality lacks the connotations of shame that certain Greek practices, particularly anal sex, do. Homosexual practices were seen as pure and virtuous, often more so than sex with women, and was a practice that was lauded rather than denounced for two thousand years prior to western influence landing on Japanese shores.

(I am not making a statement of opinion here, that is a for another forum at another time! I am not condoning or condemning anything, merely trying to relate the facts! The practice of pederasty, while obviously abhorrent to us today, was a commonplace fact of life at the time in question, hence it’s frank and non judgmental handling in the article!)

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This entry was posted in Azuchi-Momoyama Period, Edo Period, Japanese History, Muromachi Period and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Homosexuality in Feudal Japan

  1. bushidojo says:

    I want to ask your permission to translate into spanish and publish it in my blog (bushidojo.wordpress.com) with a link to your site. Dani

    Like

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