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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.