Male Colours–the history of homosexuality in Japan

I’m delighted today to have a guest post by a friend of mine, Dave Weaver, who’s something of an expert on Japan and is here to blog on the history of homosexuality in the country – I was fascinated to learn of close parallels with the better-known Greek system of erastes/eromenos.


Over to Dave:

Medieval Times:

Before the modern word for gays (doseiaisha or ‘same-sex-love-person’) the ancient term Nanshoku (‘male colours’) was used for male-male sex. This was originally associated with China, a country the Japanese took much of their original cultural identity from.

Living a Monastic Existence, Shinto Style

Nanshoku relationships were typical inside monasteries where an older partner (or nenja – ‘lover’ or ‘admirer’) would take on a younger acolyte (chigo) who would usually be an adolescent boy, the relationship being dissolved on manhood.

The nenja might even be asked to write a formal vow of fidelity as the affair was considered one of honour. Homosexuality went unopposed by religion and Tokugawa writers of the time were free to illustrate members of the non-Buddhist Kami tradition engaging in anal sex with each other. During this period (1603 – 1868) some Shinto Gods (such as Hachiman, Myoshin and Tenjin) were seen as guardians of male-male love.

In the Army – Do Ask, Do Tell

Elsewhere, same-sex love was adopted in the military by the warrior (Samurai) class where it was considered customary for a boy to be apprenticed to a more experienced adult. While being trained in the martial arts the boy could agree to have their relationship formalized in a ‘brotherhood contract’, making them exclusive to each other.

This system of age-structured homosexuality known as shudo (aka wakashudo) would see the older partner (the nenja) train his protégé in the skills of the warrior while both enjoyed the ‘mutually ennobling effect’ of the arrangement. These roles became defined sexually as the Nenja (older) being the active penetrating partner while the receptive wakashu (younger) would be the submissive, loyal and affectionate one.


The Baleful Influence of the Bourgeoisie

As society became more peaceful the new middle classes took up the shudo ways, coarsening and distorting them with male prostitutes (kagema) pretending to be young kabuki actors while making themselves available to play the role of wakashu for their rich clients. The old honourable traditions were either lost or subverted.

With the arrival of Christian missionaries from the West, attitudes to homosexual love began to change, and laws were passed to criminalise male/male sexual activity. Although they were later repealed, the shift to a more Western view of morality remained.

Modern Times, Modern Ways

In modern day Japan, despite new levels of tolerance especially in the cities, Japanese gay men and lesbians can still suffer discrimination and are often not “out”.

There is some legal protection for homosexual men and women, although some prefectures set the age of consent for gays higher than for those concerning heterosexual activity. The government of Tokyo has passed laws banning discrimination against gays in employment although the Diet (government assembly) has yet to include sexual orientation in Japan’s civil rights code.

Even so, some politicians are at last speaking out about their own homosexuality and gay rights in Japan seem destined to continue changing for the better.

Flowerchain Stories

Dave Weaver has just published a collection of interconnected short stories set in modern day Japan, Flowerchain Stories. A minor character in one story becomes the main character in the next, until they come full circle. I asked him what inspired him to choose the format:

I’ve always liked the idea of connected stories (Snitzler’s La Ronde is the basic template) and I wanted to show how seemingly random connections between people can influence their lives without them realizing it.

And why Japan?

I have a personal connection with Japan and am fascinated by the country. I wanted to use the collection as a showcase for the ways Japanese society is both similar and very different to ours; in their attitudes to family, friendship, work, love and sex. There are references particular to Japanese history (the bomb and the arrival of the Black Ships of Commodore Perry) and other aspects; love hotels, racist investigation of family backgrounds, sex-crimes and teen idol worship. My idea was to use these differing subjects as a backdrop and influence on the various characters as we follow a few hours and days of their individual lives.

Flowerchain Stories is available for download on Amazon Kindle now.

About jlmerrow

JL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea. She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again. Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne. She writes across genres, with a preference for contemporary gay romance and the paranormal, and is frequently accused of humour. Find JL Merrow online at:
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