Editor’s note: This piece contains some brief discussion of suicide.
Homosexual and bisexual (male) narratives were a pillar of Pre-Meiji Japanese popular culture. This is seen prominently in the literature of the Tokugawa Era (also known as the Edo Period), the time between 1603 and 1868. From the dedicated, warrior top, to the Tokugawa twinks of Edo, these character archetypes enjoyed wide public knowledge and appreciation, which was unheard of in contemporary areas of the Western world. The literature produced in this time reflected a world where love and sex between men could be accepted and celebrated. They had their own sets of intensive central norms, but these norms were far more generous to non-heterosexual (male) sexual practice and identity than the modern reader might imagine.
These stories have a vibrant life to them, and it is easy to see the long line of human connection in these tales. They vary in subject, from the romantic tragedies of love between samurai, to highly sexual comedy—even what to do when a badger monster rushes into your castle (and you’re simultaneously thrust into a gay love triangle that you can’t get out of).
The most acceptable narrative of homosexuality in the Tokugawa era was structured homosexuality. The two roles in this structure were of the Nenja, the established male lover, and the Wakashu, the beautiful and sexually receptive male youth. I’ve avoided tales involving Wakashu on the youngest end of what was, in reality, a broad age spectrum.
Most of these anecdotes are gathered from among the many stories anthologized in The Great Mirror of Male Love, by Iharu Saikaku, a work self-expressed to be a purposeful depiction of the great diversity and great beauty of homosexual (male) love, valiantly translated by Dr. Paul G. Schallow. Any direct narrative quotations are owed to Dr. Schallow.
1.) Twink Tribulations
Love at first sight is a well-trod trope in Tokugawa literature. Romantically interpreted as the result of a deep karmic bond, powerful warriors are shown laid waste at the sight of a beautiful young samurai, or the performance of a particularly alluring Kabuki actor. My favorite example of this trope is a reversal of the common narrative: having the receptive sexual role actor (read, bottom), starring as the one struck lovesick by the handsomeness of a man.
Jutaro, a “cold hearted youth,” a term meaning a young man who is inconsiderate of the feelings of his suitors, begins this story lamenting that his beauty will eventually fade, and he may not find a man to his liking before that time.
One day, a man comes to visit Jutaro’s family’s shop—handsome and virile, Jutaro falls instantly in love with him. He wishes to confess his feelings, but the man departs before he gets his chance. Filled with longing, with no way to satisfy it, Jutaro goes into a fit of lovesickness. This situation is grim. In romantic literature of the era, lovesickness was a very real threat to life and limb. A healthy young man could easily be swept away with madness and fatal weakness.
Jutaro, so affected, shrieks at his family—a spear held aloft in one hand, he holds his beloved pekingese in the other, like a drunken Sonja Morgan.
“I have left unopened the hundreds of love letters from my suitors and gained a reputation for being cold-hearted, only because I have never found a man to my liking. This man is different, though. If he would but take pity on me and love me, I would gladly give myself to him in a vow of love,” he hollers.
Seeing his feverish urgency, his family promises to find his man. Tragically, they know nothing of his travel plans. The search fails. The news brings Jutaro further under the spell of lovesickness. He quickly begins to fall ill, his prognosis: death by karmic gay love connection.
His family already mourns him. They are unable to offer any aid from the physical world of medicine and doctors.
Luckily for Jutaro, days from death, a vision of the man’s location comes to him in a dream. He sees him traveling a common path through the countryside, stopping at shrines along the way. Jutaro’s family rushes to find him. This time, aided by their son’s visions, they succeed.
The man, who they now know as Ichikuro, arrives at Jutaro’s bedside just in time. The moment Jutaro sees the man he’s so longed for, the vitality rushes back into his body.
He reveals that, during a night’s rest in a temple on Ichikuro’s journey, Jutaro had joined him spiritually. Their souls had made love at the holy site. “Did you know I spent a mystical night in your arms?” he asks.
As proof, Jutaro also reveals that he broke a stick of incense in half and slipped it into his lover’s sleeve that night. Astonished and overjoyed, Ichikuro proceeds to pull that very incense from his sleeve. They pledge to love each other in this life and the next. Assumedly, the Pekingese lives happily ever after as well.
Romance authors take note!
2.) A Fatally Cold Shoulder
The serving and receiving of a cup of sake is still a symbolic act in Japan today. In the Tokugawa Era, it was frequently mentioned as a romantic gesture of male love. Being served by someone above your station was a great honor. As was being served by someone you respected for other, sexier reasons. To serve a man a cup of sake could be a suggestive act for a samurai. To drink from the same place on that cup was to simulate a kiss. Or, as it was contemporarily referred to as, sucking mouth.
In Tortured to Death with Snow on His Sleeve”, the sharing of a cup of sake causes a great deal of strife, and multiple deaths.
At the start of this tale, a group of samurai are having a boozy party to admire the cherry blossoms. It’s a common pastime for the era (and today). By the time our unfortunate hero, Haemon, arrives, the Komodaru is almost empty. The Komodaru, a wood barrel for drinking at celebrations, would’ve been filled with the sweet, viscous rice wine contemporary to the story’s era.
A friendly young man provides him with the rest of his cup, and Haemon accepts platonically. This action, however, is the moment that seals his fate.
Waiting for him at home is his lover, Sasonusoke. No matter how much Haemon drinks, he thinks and speaks only of him.
But there is a meddler at the party. This anonymous meddler, unnamed and undescribed by the author, informs Sasonusoke that Haemon has accepted sake from another man.
Later that night, when Haemon returns home, through the snow, Sasonusoke is waiting. Furious, he locks Haemon out of the house, and orders him to stand beneath his balcony. He tells him he knows of his betrayal.
When Sasonusoke orders him to remove his clothes, Haemon complies. He begs forgiveness, and tries to explain.
The cold weather and snow soon begin to take their toll on the disrobed man. When Haemon calls up, “ I am about to die out here!” Sasonusoke retorts, “don’t tell me the friendly warmth of the sake has worn off already!” This retort, born of gay jealousy, makes Sasonusoke one of my favorite figures in literature.
Sasonusoke, deeply invested in this drama, then produces a drum to bang on as he sings a loud, angry song. “Ah, I sing a dreadful dirge!” he chants, banging a way on his drum.
The vengeful young man realizes too late that Haemon is truly about to die. And when, having finally understood, he rushes down to help him, it is too late. Haemon dies soon after. Sasonusoke follows suit, heartbroken.
The tragic endings to some of these stories can trigger a knee-jerk dissatisfaction in the queer reader of today, but these young men did not suffer these fates on behalf of their orientations, but because popular culture of the time believed death for love to be amongst the peaks of romance. It is to the credit of their homosexual love, not in punishment for it, that these characters meet brutal ends. Love-suicide became so romanticized that such stories were eventually criminalized, in an effort to curb a youthful death toll.
3.) Homosexual Grievances, a Hate Letter
Love Letter Sent in a Sea Bass is based loosely on a true story. This incident, that so captivated the public, was like a Tokugawa novel come to life: two young samurai fighting to the death for the hand of a third young man.
In Saikaku’s version, the fantastic centerpiece of the tale is an angry love letter from the Wakashu to his Nenja.
Another man has attempted to make a claim on the Wakashu’s love, and he finds himself furious at the blasé faire attitude, and lack of jealous indignation, from his lover. He decides to go kill this new suitor himself, and leaves behind a scathing letter.
The Wakashu, called Mashida Toyonoshin, begins by stating that he is “deeply hurt” that his lover, Moriwaki Gonkuro, should “hesitate to die with [him].” He writes that, in the interest of clearing his resentments so as to attain heaven, he has written this letter as “final testament to all of the grudges against you that have accumulated in me since we first met.”
In this letter, Mashida shares with Moriwaki seven grievances:
- Mashida states that he has travelled the perilous road to Gonkuro’s home up to 327 times! To keep such trips hidden from nightly patrols, he was forced to enact a number of disguises.
- During a period where Mashida says he was, “Gravely ill (with worry about you, I am sure),” he had trekked to see Gonkuro a final time, in case his illness proved fatal. For all his efforts, he was greeted by betrayal. Gonkuro had another man inside. And when they heard Mashida’s voice, they extinguished their lamp, pretending to not be home!
- After Mashida painted a fan with calligraphy for his lover, Gonkuro praised the gesture highly. But later, Mashida came to find that Gonkuro had given the fan to an attendant. On it, he’d written harsh criticism of the calligraphy.
- A request from Mashida for Gonkuro’s prized bird was denied. Instead, Gonkuro had given it to another: “the most handsome boy in the household.” Mashida says his jealousy has yet to fade.
- After a group riding exercise, Gonkuro failed to tell him about the dirt on the back of his trousers. He exchanged amused glances with another man, instead, and a friend had to inform Mashida of his outfit’s disorder.
- Gonkuro had become angry with Mashida for talking late into the night with three others. These guests were no threat, two of whom were too young for Mashida, and the third Gonkuro trusted. Mashida swears by the gods of Japan that he cannot forgive Gonkuro’s suspicions.
- Finally, Mashida claims Gonkuro has only twice escorted him back to the bridge after a night spent together, and has not once escorted him all the way home. It was always Mashida who took the perilous journey (risking bandits and tigers!) to reach him—and Mashida who journeyed home.
With this list of homosexual grievances, Mashida works towards the end of his letter, saying, “Though I hold this and that grudge against you, the fact that I cannot bring myself to stop loving you must be the work of some strange fate…”
To my great joy, Gonkuro arrives in time to help Mashida fight. “A coward is no friend of mine,” he tells Gonkuro when he arrives. Gonkuro weeps, and says that instead of apologies, he will prove his love in death. Mashida isn’t convinced. He insists he doesn’t need his lover’s help.
Mid-bickering, the men they are there to fight arrive. Together, they slay a whole party of dishonorable rogues. They plan to commit ritual suicide, but are pardoned by the state instead.
Young men all the land over are said to imitate Mashida, and long for male lovers. Male love “became the fashion, and the love between men and women went into precipitous decline.” If only!
4.) Positive Heterosexual Role Models
Those of us in modern queer circles are likely no stranger to rhetoric on the respective sophistication and worth of certain modes of sexual expression, but the Tokugawa Japanese had perfected this into a literal art form. The Denbu Monogatari was the introduction of a genre centered around characters representing exclusively heterosexual, bisexual (in many varying ways), and exclusively homosexual men arguing about the merits of loving men, women, or both. Despite all characters involved possessing swords, the story maintains a peacefulness you will not often find online.
The men depicted exchange variety of arguments: from the listing of positive heterosexual role models versus the moral and aesthetic failures of women, to the frustration of parents whose sons choose not to marry because of a lack of attraction to women versus the disappointment of wives whose husbands say to them, on their wedding night, “sorry, but I’m a boy lover.”
5.) He’s Gotta Have It (A Saikaku Joint)
The following quote is a moment only told in passing, but it paints a vivid picture of the fulfilling sex life of a man who loved other men, with a brightness of character often lacking in our own modern depictions of homosexual and bisexual fictional characters. This character, Tamagawa Sennojo, is fictionalized in this story, but he did live.
The story speaks extremely highly of him. He has countless male patrons, all enamored with him. He drives men mad with desire with only a glance. His one fault, the narrator tells us, is an over-willingness to sleep with any man who loves him.
The author informs us that he was once able to peak inside Sennojo’s diary. The entries described, “how he slept with brawny samurai, turning devilish rogues into purring pussycats, breathed sophistication into earthy farmers, made shinto priests cut their thick hair more stylishly, and put hakama on buddhist abbots. At each appointment he entertained without restraint and yet maintained all the while complete control over his patrons, using them for his own personal pleasure.” Good for him!
The story’s primary plot centers on Sennojo finding an old lover who’s fallen into poverty, and tending to him in the empty canals occupied by the poor, only to lose him yet again. It is a tale meant to illustrate Sennojo’s perfection as a model of homosexual love.
6.) Two Cherry Trees Grafted Together
The beautifully titled, Two Old Cherry Trees Still in Bloom, is one of the Tokugawa era’s most interesting stories of male love. This story is part of the great diversity in the anthology that reveals a wide knowledge of all sorts of homosexual relationships.
The cherry tree was a common symbol of both beauty and the fleeting nature of reality in Buddhist doctrine. These ideas combine in works on male love, coming to represent the impermanence of youthful beauty, and of the relationships themselves. The time constraints on homosexual love, while certainly not invented, were often symbolic. Authors sometimes approach the topic with a wink and a nudge. Among “True Youths,” they were generally older than in other famous examples of age structured homosexuality, like perhaps, the most well known: ancient Greece. The two roles in the Grecian system were the Erastes, the adult male lover, and the Eronemos, the adolescent male youth. The ages at which the traditionally idealized (commonly understood) Eronemos aged out of his role into manhood, the Japanese Wakashu was considered to just be graduating into his “full bloom of youth.”
These cherry trees, the oldest couple in The Great Mirror of Male Love, are both in their sixties. Notorious ‘woman haters,’ they yell through the wall at their heterosexually married neighbors, and shoo visiting women away from their home with a broom.
The story explicitly labels them “eccentric” for never dissolving the relationship, but just as explicitly names them as a positive example of the tradition of male love to be emulated in their continued dedication to each other and to male love. The narrator directly tells us that this is not the usual situation, but it is praised as assuredly as it is teased.
The two men fell in love when they were both in their teens, and never parted, having fought and won for their love against another samurai who wished to gain the ‘youth’ as his own lover.
The story is likely to raise more than one modern hackle (they think that their neighbor should kill his wife, for horrifying instance), but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the depiction of a life that many people would claim was never depicted or lived at all. And despite the stereotypes, and the humor, the story offers that way of living its approval.
7.) Fireflies Also Hit It From The Back
The tone of these stories is highly variable, sometimes even varying hugely in one story. In the explicitly titled, Fireflies Also Work Their Asses at Night, we see this clearly. The narrator begins by telling us of male actors and drum-bearers in the pleasure quarters. He describes not only their pleasures, but the exploitation they suffer dually as performers and as sex workers.
In one scene, fireflies enter the room of a party, “their glow rivaling the lamplight.” Fireflies were sometimes a symbol of homosexual love. The origin of this connection: the from-behind position of firefly mating, and the “hot buttocks” of the firefly itself.
One lands gently on the sleeve of an actor courtesan, Handayu. “I am just like the firefly,” he says. The actor is referencing a Bunraku play (Japanese puppet theater), in which one character, in the moment of Japanese puppet plays where emotions are all revealed, draws descriptions from the nature on their fictive journey. “In truth,” the quote goes, “I am like the cicada or the firefly; I cry, I burn, yet know not which way to go.”
It sets an evocative scene. And then another man speaks. “You may be right,” he says, “this firefly’s work also involves using its ass.” The rude remark is a startling shift, and it shifts yet again, as the story goes on to reveal that a lovelorn priest has been following Handayu, filling the air with fireflies. The priest would release the insects one by one into wherever he stayed, just to please Handayu.
It’s an achingly sweet revelation, though it is followed by death and disaster—a flood, this time.
8.) Confirmed Bachelor
The ABCs of Boy Love by Ihara Saikaku begins by introducing us to a figure, not unheard of in his own time, who flies in the face of what we imagine of people from the past:
A handsome, young school teacher called Ichido The Pen Master, who has moved to the country to get away from the busy city life—unmarried by choice, having turned down an enthusiastic offer of marriage from a prominent family. The reason, he tells us, is his lack of attraction to women, and his dedication to male love.
Having moved to the country to escape big city life, he hopes for a beautiful young man to find his way into his life. He keeps himself well coifed—oiling his beard and brushing his hair, just in case! When local women confront him on his total lack of interest, he makes his preferences clear.
Ichido is far from the only figure in Tokugawa literature stated to have permanently avoided marriage to a woman because of a desire to engage only in homosexual sex and relationships.
Attending his school are two nine year old boys who he notices have fallen into chaste puppy love with each other. One takes the social role of Nenja, and the other of Wakashu—one boy doing physical tasks for the other and protecting him from exertion and harm. He wonders if they learned it by watching him, as his lifestyle is no secret.
This is only the beginning of the tale, which quickly devolves into high drama with a serious death toll, but it is my favorite part. Ichido is only mentioned at the beginning, and avoids the tragedy befalling its protagonists. We can assume he kept on teaching, and being gay, and wearing his alluring perfume (just in case!)
9.) Tokugawa Triad
The most culturally admired male love relationships in fiction were monogamous–committing to total exclusivity (not just exclusivity to men, and nonmonogamy when it comes to women, as some have suggested). A third party becoming a part of a budding romance is most often a one way ticket to blood and death. But one story in the great mirror of male love dispenses with this ideal of monogamy, when one samurai winds up openly taking two other samurai as his lovers, at their own request.
The son of a local lord has the pox, and this nobleman wishes to find a cure for the boy’s scars. One of the men in his service has the answer: his friend, the bird-keeper. This local bird keeper, a samurai, has a very special bird in his flock. Its feather is the key ingredient for a pox cure.
He also, we find out, loves handsome young men, and hates women. The beautiful women sent to his door to reason with him are turned away at the gate.
As the dominant, neo-Confucian culture of Tokugawa Japan was deeply misogynistic, these attitudes had become entwined in concepts of male-male sexuality, both as a way to defend ones sexuality against the more dominant narrative of male-female sexuality (though homosexual sex and romance structured in a certain way was not inherently stigmatized, and was a part of both popular and religious narratives, male-female sexuality certainly had the greater social focus), or as a way to explain the existence of these sexualities themselves. Additionally, Nanshoku, or “male colors” meaning the way of homosexual male love, centered its social ethos around male Japanese values of bravery, loyalty, honor, and correct manly action. Though the Wakashu are often considered effeminate by modern standards, the role of Wakashu in Japanese society, especially in samurai society, was intensely tied to its male status. Gender politics and rules in “proper” society were intense. Some of the concepts (such as crossdressing) that we associate with Wakashu now, were primarily only actually available in daily life to the likes of those living in the pleasure quarters, not, for instance, the son of the average samurai.
Although dominant cultural narratives did not necessarily associate crossdressing with identifying outside ones assigned gender, it should certainly be noted that the lived, internal reality of, for example, people like the subset of Onnagata (actors who performed as women in the theatre) who lived full time in female attire instead of only presenting as such in a work context, were likely more diverse and complex, with a variety of personal conceptions and experiences of gender (including experiences outside of maleness).
“Feminine” beauty and the position of receptive sexual role actor were not inherently at odds with concepts of Japanese maleness, and works on Nanshoku often stress the importance that the lovers share a fierce and spiritually masculine identity. A Wakashu will in turn be described as beautiful as a famous Chinese courtesan, and as possessing this socially lauded identity of maleness and manliness. This masculine bond was a huge point in fictional debates on the relative merits of homosexual versus heterosexual love.
This bird loving warrior feels very strongly about this subject. Women are not allowed inside his home, with no exceptions. So, finally, it is two young men—samurai—who make it beyond his gates. They are prepared to kill and die for the bird, but the necessity never arrives. The man is struck with love for them. They’re gifted the bird and sent on their way in peace.
When the matter is settled, they return to him with a request. The two samurai ask him to take them on as lovers. He demurs, as he does not know who he would pick between them. But the suitors are not deterred. They have a solution: he will love them both. They present to him his name tattooed on them, family name on one, first name on the other. This particular tactic fails, (it’s womanly, he tells them). But they manage to prove their sincerity, and he accepts. The trio ends the story happily, with a note from the narrator that it is quite the unusual vow of love.
10.) Romance, Interrupted
I round out my list with what may be the most romantic sentence ever written:
I express myself clumsily, but if you would show me your true beauty and let me roost featherless in the branches of your grafted cherry tree, or allow me to approach as close to you as the one winged hiyoku, I would gladly receive your love for seven generations.
The vision of roosting, featherless, in your lovers’ branches brings to mind such tender safety and longing. The hiyoku is a lovely reference as well—the creature being a legendary bird with one wing, who can fly only when pressed against its mate.
To a modern reader, the romance of such a line is immediately squashed when he subsequently threatens not to love but, if he should rebuff his advances, to haunt him as a vengeful spirit for seven generations. But this romance, married to this specter of vengeful ghost activity, captures perfectly the spirit of these stories.