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Male-Male Eroticism in Japan

Koinos Magazine #40 (2003/4) and #41 (2004/1)

Nanshoku, the Japanese word for eroticism between adolescent and adult males, was the longest lived and most public expression of same-sex affection anywhere in the world. We recreate what it was like as we follow a fictional samurai, Tsūsaburō, on his way to the kabuki. We then describe the center of Tsūsaburō's Edo and present a description of nanshoku in literature and art. Edo was the name for Tokyo until the overthrow of the shōgun in 1868.

Ume yanagi sazo wakashu kana onna kana
(Plum and willow, boy or woman?)
— Matsuo Bashō

Edo, 1787

An unseasonably warm spring breeze rippled the flags on the ritual washbasin at Yushima Hill's Shintō shrine. Visitors crowded the grounds, enjoying the fragrant plum blossoms. Tsūsaburō paused to read the names on two of the banners: Bayō from the Kabukiya and Utagiku from the Tateya. Utagiku... Chrysanthemum-song, a lovely name for a boy. The young samurai didn't know the brothel where Utagiku worked, but he had been to the Kabukiya. This morning he was headed to a real kabuki performance. He knelt briefly in front of the basin, praying for an engaging performance as well as Utagiku's fortunes.

On his way out of the temple, Tsūsaburō passed the telescopes through which people gazed down at the sprawling city of more than a million, at the Ryōgoku Bridge arching gracefully across the Sumida River and the bay beyond. He would soon walk by the bridge en route to the theatre in the Yoshi-chō. Yoshi-chō and Yushima Hill had been two of Edo's largest nanshoku districts for more than 150 years. Each had dozens of teahouses, brothels, hotels and bathhouses at which boys and men met.

Tsūsaburō threaded his way through narrow streets, tracking his progress by the guardhouses placed at 120-meter intervals. He passed blocks of cramped commoner housing. Nameplates on the gates to the alleys behind them announced plasterers and palm readers, doctors and calligraphy teachers. The scenery changed dramatically as he reached the large plaza fronting the bridge. It was a crossroads for all Edo. Banners festooned the tall buildings near the water's edge, advertising massage healers and carnival attractions, including a charcoal eating ostrich and a porcupine from the mountain wilds of Tanba.

Vendors peddled loquat leaf broth and sushi vinegar rice; merchants sold Dutch cloth, dumplings and inari fritters. A cacophony of strings, drums and flutes accompanied their cries. People of all stations and ages were shopping, sightseeing or hurrying through. They stood elbow-to-elbow along the Ryōgoku's wooden balustrade watching the busy river traffic.

Tsūsaburō noticed the man deftly wielding a pair of enormously long chopsticks to hand the sweet chilled agar-jelly treat tokoroten up to a customer on the second floor of a building. But it was a youth trying his skill at a blow-dart booth who caught his eye. He was a maegami, a boy with forelocks, thus about 13 or 14. The lad noticed Tsūsaburō's expensively tailored kimono and the two swords – the long katana and short wakizashi – denoting his noble status.

Gracing him with a grin, the boy urged Tsūsaburō to join him, suggestively tapping a dart into the blowgun's long tube. Tsūsaburō merely smiled. Maybe he would like to see a sumo match in Honjo, just across the bridge. Better still, Tsūsaburō thought wryly, take him to the Fukiya-ga-hama (Blow-dart Beach), a well-known male brothel. But as attractive and seemingly willing as the youth was, kabuki starts early and Tsūsaburō did not want to miss the scene in which Hanai Saizaburō would make his entrance. He gave the lad a shrug. Some other time perhaps.

Arriving at the Yoshi-chō, the samurai came to the Nakamura-za theatre. Lanterns swung from its red and green striped facade. A prominent roof tower with a black gingko leaf curtain marked it as one of Edo's three large kabuki playhouses. Long vertical signboards listed the day's events, including the play he had come to watch, Chikamatsu's drama Shinjū yoigōshin (Love Suicides on the Eve of the Kōshin Festival). It was a popular work, its theme taken from an event which had occurred only weeks before its premiere. The signboards were scarcely necessary; on a wide raised stage before the entrance sat the kido geisha, raucous barkers pointing their fans at passersby, mimicking the actors' voices.

Above them a poster read "house full" but Tsūsaburō was known to the ticket seller. Though samurai were not allowed to attend kabuki, theatres routinely looked the other way. Within moments, 4000-mon ticket in hand (roughly 70 euros), he was making his way to a box in front of the galleries overlooking the hanamichi (flower path), the runway and secondary stage on which the performers entered the cavernous hall.

It was a good place to see and be seen, almost at eye level with the actors. To his right, Tsūsaburō noticed a lattice screen on the sides of a box above the pit, shielding its occupants – a high-ranking samurai or perhaps a daimyō (domain lord) – from the audience. The first act was already underway, spectators eating, drinking and commenting on the performance.

He took his spot in time to watch the actor playing Hanbei, a samurai who had fallen to the status of a merchant, decide which of three noblemen was worthy of the love of his younger brother, the novice samurai Koshichirō. Hanai Saizaburō would play Koshichirō. Tsūsaburō wondered if the young actor would live up to his billing.

At that moment the boy entered along the hanamichi. Tsūsaburō caught his breath. Hanai was as beautiful as he had heard. The yarō hyōbanki (actor critiques) hawked in the theatre district had not exaggerated. He was listed as one of the highest earning wakashu-gata (adolescent actors). At 15, he had the presence of an older performer; his refined manner, said the hyōbanki, made the movements of other wakashu-gata look like those of untrained falcons.

Hanai walked down the hanamichi in white death robes, softly singing an aria in a haunting voice. The plucked strings of a shamisen provided a plaintive accompaniment. Women and men in the audience winked at him, wordless offers of one-night companionship. Hanai's eyes flitted impassively over their faces, including Tsūsaburō's, paying them no heed. In this he was following the nō master Zeami's dictum that the actor turn his face in the direction of the audience but never gaze directly at it, not even at nobility.

This was common in the more stately nō, Tsūsaburō knew, but not in kabuki, where actors would often pose and fix audience members with an uso (special look) in the hope of meeting after the performance. The boy had remarkable poise.

On the main stage, Hanbei placed a pair of unsheathed swords on a small offering table in front of his brother's suitors. Their half-meter long blades were equally suited for combat or seppuku (ritual suicide). He sternly told them whoever wanted his brother's hand must be prepared to join him in death. As the play's narrator observed that the boy "maintains nanshoku's highest principles," Hanai moved wordlessly toward the table. He sat by it and looked from the deadly weapons to each of the men.

Tsūsaburō recalled a passage written 100 years earlier about the young Osaka actor Uemura Tatsuya. It was from the brush of the novelist Saikaku: "The distant sky so frightening! How greatly he resembles the beautiful pet boys so loved by lords of ancient times. The incense fragrant in his hair... selected by moonlight... That long and slender figure like the bending willow reed: what could be more replete with fascination?" Uemura might have been beautiful, Tsūsaburō mused, but what boy could have had Hanai's feline grace?

His pulse quickened at the feral spirit he thought might underlie the youth's calm demeanor. Hanai was beyond beauty. Surely he was already the companion of some high-ranking lord, perhaps even now in the auditorium watching his younger lover.

The three samurai shrank from the sight of the swords and the sound of Hanbei's harsh words. But not the young footman Koichibei. Making a dramatic entrance, dressed in a plain blue commoner's kimono, he declared himself ready to die for the boy's love. Koichibei strode over to the table and picked up a sword. It glittered in the sunlight streaming in under the theatre's open eaves. Hanai moved close to him in readiness.

The audience fell silent. Koichibei began to bring the sword down, but suddenly Hanbei stayed his arm, declaring Koichibei's heart to be the most sincere. "May you always remain close," said Hanbei as he sanctioned their vows of unity and fidelity. As the man and boy embraced, the narrator commented, "Deep solid blue against immaculate white-a brotherhood of unblemished purity."

At the end of the act, Tsūsaburō watched as Hanai walked back along the hanamichi. Passing Tsūsaburō's box, the boy locked eyes with him and nodded almost imperceptibly, a hint of a smile on his lips. The samurai felt his heart skip a beat.

Ignoring whispered comments by those around him, Tsūsaburō made his way to the adjoining shibai-jaya (a teahouse used to meet actors). As he left the hall, he reflected on the audience's fascination with the performers' physical beauty and sexuality. Perhaps the actor's most difficult art is displayed after the straw mats (curtain) came down, he thought. The actor must manufacture that uso for one or more customers again and again until dawn. Tsūsaburō flushed, thinking of how Hanai looked at him, and hurried into the shibai-jaya.

Boy Actor and Lover (anonymous, 1643)

Edo in real life

Three of Edo's better known nanshoku areas were Yushima Hill, Kobiki-chō and Yoshi-chō. The latter two were also theatre districts. Kobiki-chō was in what today is the Ginza. Yoshi-chō survives as a block name in the area now called Nihonbashi. The Fukiya-ga-hama, the brothel to which Tsūsaburō imagines taking a youth he sees, was popular, its name punning that of the Fukiya-chō block in the Yoshi-chō. The establishments Kabukiya and Tateya, whose names appear on the banners Tsūsaburō notices at Yushima Hill's Shintō shrine, may have been fictitious. Utagiku (chrysanthemum-song), the name on one of the banners, would have been read as that of the boy prostitute who had made an offering at the shrine; chrysanthemum was a symbol for the anus.

From not long after the construction of the Ryōgoku Bridge in 1659 and for the next 200 years, the carnivalesque atmosphere of the large plaza on the Nihonbashi side of the span symbolized the heart of Edo much as Times Square did New York City during the 20th century. Blow-dart booths of the type Tsūsaburō sees are depicted in illustrations from the period (the goal being to hit a string which would unhook to release a prize). Sumo matches are still held on the other side of the Sumida River.

The authorities created the plaza (a hirokōji, or broad open space) as a firebreak, probably not realizing it would become the city's foremost area of popular amusement. On the hirokōji proper, the many lively small merchant and carnival stalls concentrated the popular energy – Edo's 'libidinal economy', in the words of J. Lyotard – while the vista of the river and open fields on the other side of the bridge presented a sense of freedom. The contrast between the sight of the closed-in stalls and the open spaces of the river and countryside is exemplified in the paintings and prints called ukiyo-e which depict Japan's 'floating world', or the pursuit of pleasure.

Jilly Traganou observes that many ukiyo-e employ techniques which blur the typically Western distinction between a map and a picture. Ukiyo-e present a mosaic of loosely connected scenes rather than an integrated view based on a photograph-like visual perspective. In this it exemplifies the medieval aesthetic of resonances, which reached its peak in the haikai linked verse of the poet Bashō. Perhaps nowhere would the ukiyo-e aesthetic have been more evident in real life than on the hirokōji fronting the Ryōgoku. If any location could be said to have marked the center of Edo Japan's floating world it may have been this.

The authorities banned samurai from the kabuki because of incidents like that in Kyoto in 1656, when a samurai, jealous over the affections of a boy actor, provoked a swordfight in a theatre box. By the mid-1600s, not long after its establishment, kabuki had become a locus of boy prostitution. Kabuki was engaged in a running ideological battle with the state. Writes Steven Heine, it constituted 'a perpetual anti-structure ... that represented the antithesis and rejection of the puritanical, Japanese-adapted Confucian values endorsed by the shōgunate.' As members of the ruling class, samurai were expected to uphold these values, which allowed for boy love but not attendance at entertainment for the lesser classes. Many samurai partook of both; hence the screened boxes mentioned in the story.

Although by Tsūsaburō's time many nanshoku-oriented establishments were centered around the kabuki, nanshoku, as much as part of life as sunlight, would have been visible everywhere. This is unlike the gated, sometimes moated, heterosexual pleasure quarters of the large cities, such as Edo's Yoshiwara. Very likely men and male youths had more freedom of action with each other than did men with women.

Given nanshoku's long history, it is little wonder high officials in the late 1700s were astonished to learn that Western countries severely punished male-male sex, even if the younger partner was willing. After the overthrow of the shōgun, Japan briefly had a law prohibiting same-sex practices. It banned anal intercourse and was in effect from 1873 to 1880, when it was repealed and an age of consent established at twelve, raised to thirteen in 1907. Today there are age-of-consent laws at the prefectural level prohibiting sexual relations with those under eighteen.

Literature and art

Nanshoku's evolution can be traced from the medieval monasteries to the samurai and eventually to the merchant classes in Edo, Kyoto and Osaka. Some of its earlier representations include scroll paintings and chigo (acolyte) stories, such as the 14th-century Chigo Kannon Engi which poignantly depicts the Buddhist concept of life's transience.

One of Japanese literature's great lovers was Ariwara no Narihira, protagonist of the classic Ise monogatari. As a boy he was the subject of what became a well-known love poem, 'Iwatsutsuji' (Azaleas on the Cliffs), written by an unknown priest in the 9th century. Seven hundred and fifty years later, the shōgunate's poetry tutor, Kitamura Kigin, compiled an anthology intended to show the long tradition of idealized relations between male youths and men.

He named it after the poem. Nanshoku was everywhere, observed Kigin. He wrote in his preface that it '...plagues the heart of not only courtier and aristocrat (this goes without saying) but also of brave warriors. Even the mountain dwellers who cut brush for fuel have learned to take pleasure in the shade of young saplings.'

Kigin may not have known his collection came at the dawn of nanshoku's greatest flowering in literature and arts, during the Genroku era (c. 1688-1710). Scholars compare Genroku to the Renassiance for the number of brilliant works and the eagerness with which the public consumed them. Three of Japan's most famous writers were at the peak of their expressive powers: Ihara Saikaku, who introduced the realistic novel to Japanese fiction, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, whose dramas helped determine the nation's discourse on loyalty and heroic virtue, and Matsuo Bashō, master of the linked verse haikai.

Saikaku wrote perceptively about the love of women (his first novel, Kōshoku ichidai otoko [The Life of an Amorous Man, 1682], lampoons the Ise monogatari in part), but nanshoku is present throughout his œuvre as it was in life. It takes center stage in his collection of stories Nanshoku ōkagami: honchō waka fūzoku (The Great Mirror of Male Love: the Custom of Boy Love in Our Land). 

It was a crossover work which the Osakan hoped would attract samurai readers in fast-growing Edo as well as his established audience of merchants and artisans in Osaka and Kyoto. It succeeded at this, becoming a best seller on its publication in 1687. Saikaku's sharply and wittily drawn characters are supremely humane. They act on their desires in ways that are familiar today. In their foibles and noble acts, their failings and successes, they allow us to see something of ourselves in them.

Chikamatsu's Shinjū yoigōshin (Love Suicides on the Eve of the Kōshin Festival), the play Tsūsaburō attends, was one of his last works, premiering in 1722. It has been part of the kabuki/jōruri (puppet theatre) repertoire ever since. Chikamatsu's influence in Japan has been compared, justly, to Shakespeare's in English-speaking cultures. Chikamatsu authored more than 100 works, of which about half have been adapted for film and television. He used nanshoku in the first act of Shinjū yoigōshin to establish Hanbei's character as someone who chooses wisely from among competing demands and who values love above life itself.

Hanbei's younger brother Koshichiro was 15 or 16. As he matured, he would perhaps take a boy lover of his own and probably a wife. The tie between him and his older lover Koichibei would endure, each expected to give his life for the other if need be. This was a samurai ideal, different from the reality of the townsmen's mercantile world, where men – and some women – bought the company of boy actors.

Nanshoku was depicted in erotica known as shunga (spring pictures). Kitagawa Utamaro produced some of shunga's finest examples. The expressions he gives people making love are breathtakingly intimate. The government took mostly a laissez-faire attitude toward regulating visual art. But one image earned Utamaro 50 days in manacles. Machiba Hisayoshi (c.1803-4) is a colored woodblock print of the ruler Hideyoshi leaning toward a pageboy, caressing the youth's wrist. It was not the late shōgun's conduct which perturbed authorities but his representation: pictures of high nobility were forbidden.

Shunga had its humorous aspects. Terasawa Masatsugu's monochrome woodblock print Song (1770s) shows the boy Sukejirō one night using his music practice to mask the sounds of another, more pleasurable, pursuit, of which the artist leaves nothing to the imagination. Unfortunately for Sukejirō, his parents are light sleepers. They open the screen between their bed and where the lad is sitting. With a bemused expression the father says, 'It's not often he gets out his "devil-eyed horn",' while the mother complains: 'He's at it again? He never takes his mind off sex.' Sukejirō, looking peeved, asks them to 'Stop embarrassing me and let me just go to bed.'

Nanshoku-themed works were popular well into the 19th century. Kigin's anthology Iwatsutsuji was published until 1849. Jippensha Ikku's 1802 Tōkaidōchū hizakurige (Down the Tōkaidō on Shanks Pony, i.e., on foot), a picaresque road novel, tells of the adventures of a man/boy pair who, when the boy reaches adulthood, decide to quit their quarters in Edo and explore Japan. Although not showing them having sex once they begin their adventures, their relationship is central to the book, whose preface consists of a series of nanshoku puns and whose characters make nanshoku jokes throughout the novel. Tōkaidōchū hizakurige was wildly successful, bringing its author fame and spawning imitators as late as the 1850s.

The 20th century

United States Commodore Matthew Perry steered his fleet of modern steam-powered warships into Uraga Bay in 1853. When he got close to land, he fired their cannon. The Japanese stood on shore ready to repel the invaders. They were armed with muskets and swords. They had never seen steamships. Perry's visit, ordered by the U.S. to coerce the nation into signing unfavorable treaties, was as much of a wake-up call for Japan as Pearl Harbor would be for the North Americans 90 years later.

As Japan scrambled to industrialize, nanshoku faded from public expression. Soon, following the new discipline of Western psychiatry, it was condemned. A set of Saikaku's works was banned in 1894. Most of the nanshoku-themed plays in the kabuki and jōruri were dropped from the repertoire, including the first act of Chikamatsu's drama described above. Many have been lost.

Westerners problematized nanshoku. W. G. Aston, a British diplomat whose 1899 survey of Japan's literary traditions was the first in English, declared, 'The very titles of some of [Saikaku's stories] are too gross for quotation.' His explanation: their 'leading feature ... is of such a nature to debar more particular description.' But Japan's reputation was noted approvingly by early homosexual rights activists in Germany, notably Benedict Friedländer, a member of Magnus Hirschfeld's Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee), and Edward Carpenter in England, where, in 1911, he cited comments made five years earlier by Ferdinand Karsch-Haack about Nanshoku ōkagami.

Some of Saikaku's nanshoku stories were translated into French in 1927 and from French to English in 1928. Even so, in 1960, Tōkaidōchū hizakurige's nanshoku content was excised in an English translation from Charles Tuttle; 12 years later, the preface to Saikaku's stories published by the same firm called nanshoku's theme 'sordid'.

 Present-day critics have not always been sym­pa­thet­ic, as may be seen in a com­ment about Okumura Masanobu's 'Sexual Three­some' (c. 1738). The wood­block hand­scroll, dis­played here, shows a man pen­etrat­ing an ado­les­cent girl while hold­ing the erect cock of an ado­les­cent boy lying next to her, per­haps as a prel­ude to pen­etrat­ing the boy as well. As late as 1995, a Japa­nese schol­ar char­ac­ter­ized this as: '...a fit­ting re­venge for this girl who has se­duced the boy. The man and woman seem happy enough, only the boy is un­for­tu­nate.' As Timon Screech ob­serves, the scroll pro­vides no evi­dence for this in­ter­preta­tion: '...why is the boy "un­for­tu­nate" (fuun), and where­in lies this "re­venge"?'

This climate is changing. Several excellent works in English have been pub­lished in the past 25 years. A 1995 issue of the Japanese journal Bungaku, 'Nanshoku no ryōbun: seisa, rekishi, hyōsho' (The Domain of Male Love: Gender, History, Representation), has more than a dozen articles embodying new critical perspectives. The famed director Oshima Nagisa treats nanshoku frankly in his 2000 movie Gohatto (Taboo), which is based on the chapter 'Maegami no Sozaburō' in Shiba Ryotaro's novel Shinsen-gumi Keppūroku.

In the West, male adolescent-adult eroticism has been visible only at the cultural margins. With a very few exceptions, it has not been openly celebrated since the poets of Sephardic Spain, whose odes circulated throughout their society. Michael Rocke documents the prevalence of male adult-adolescent relations in Renaissance Florence. From tavern boys to Niccolò Machiavelli's son Lodovico, Rocke says such relations were so widespread as to not be a subculture. But though there was tolerance, the only cultural expression came in the condemnatory sermons of churchmen like Savonarola. Given the long and very public presence of nanshoku, perhaps more of its texts will be recovered and translated.



About the story

Tsūsaburō is the protagonist of Sharakusai Manri's 1787 novel Shimadai me no shōgatsu (A Festival Tray: What a Feast for the Eyes). An illustration shows him at a real place, the Tenjin Shintō shrine on Yushima Hill, the banners of Utagiku and others visible in the background. What Tsūsaburō does when he leaves is not in Manri's novel, but accounts from that time, cited by scholars of Japan, show that a man like him could have seen and done everything described in the story above. The shrine no longer has the boys' flags but its plum trees remain popular. Their choice may have been no accident: plums were a symbol of male sexuality in Edo Japan and the shrine was in the middle of a well-known nanshoku district. Nanshoku – male adolescent-adult eroticism – was a reality for more than a millennium. It ended only in the 20th century. Nanshoku signifies a sexual role or style. It was not an orientation or preference. Nanshoku means 'male color', color connoting sexual pleasure. It was an option for men and youths with the means to pursue it, and many did.



The best book in English about nanshoku is Gregory Pflugfelder's Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950. 
Of other authors, the works of two stand out: 
Timon Screech's erudite and comprehensive analysis of shunga, Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan, 1700-1820, and 
Paul Gordon Schalow's insightful introduction to Saikaku's Nanshoku ōkagami and his article about Kitamura Kigin's Iwatsutsuji.
Well worth reading are the informative articles by Margaret Childs and Christine Guth about the medieval chigo stories. 
A high-quality reproduction of Chigo Kannon Engi is in volume 24 of Nihon emaki taisei; Childs' translation is in Stephen Miller's Partings at Dawn: An Anthology of Japanese Gay Literature. 
The books by Gary Leupp, Stephen Miller, and Tsuneo Watanabe and Jun'ichi Iwata are useful references, as is an article at the Website of the Androphile Project, The Beautiful Way of the Samurai: Native Tradition and the Hellenic Echo.


The account of the temple at Yushima Hill and the shunga examples are from Screech, as is the description of the blow-dart booth. 
The hirokōji fronting the Ryōgoku is described in separate accounts by Andrew Markus and Jilly Traganou. 
The description of the Nakamura-za theatre is from a set of detailed color block prints from the early 1800s by Utagawa Toyokuni, available at the National Diet Library's Website, and from a replica of the theatre's front at the Edo-Tokyo Museum's site. 
The excerpt of Chikamatsu's play is adapted from Andrew Gerstle's translation. 
A footnote by Schalow in his translation of Nanshoku ōkagami says Hanai Saizaburō was a popular boy actor at the Nakamura-za, albeit in Chikamatsu's day, about 50 years before the fictional Tsūsaburō's time.
The comparison of Hanai to other wakashu-gata is based on a remark about another adolescent actor in a yarō hyōbanki cited by Donald Shively. 
Saikaku's passage about the Osaka actor Uemura Tatsuya is quoted by Richard Lane. 
Tsūsaburō's observation about the nō master Zeami's dictum is from an article by Jacob Raz. 
The samurai's thought about how a kabuki actor must manufacture an uso for the audience and again for his companion(s) that night is from an article by Christopher Drake. Drake says audience members would make wordless offers of one-night companionship; other sources note that the audience could be vocal in its praise or scorn for an actor's performance.
The Bashō verse at the beginning of this article is quoted in Pflugfelder.


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Watanabe, T. & Iwata, J. (1989). The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality. London: GMP.

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