Secrets of Japan

Adam McCluskey

The people of the West are not aware that there once existed in Japan a cultural tradition of homosexuality comparable to that of ancient Greece. During a period of time in which the traditional civilization of Japan reached its perfection, the homosexual love was considered a passion more noble and more gracious than heterosexuality. Over time, this tradition of homosexuality would quickly become discouraged, and eventually it was kept so hidden as it was thought to have disapeared altogether.(1)

One interesting aspect of this tradition, which in turn aided in the spread and popularity of homosexual love in Japan is that of the No and Kabuki theatres. Dating back to the 12th century, under the rule of emperor and despot Shirakawa-In who was particularly fond of homosexual pleasure, the tradition of beautifying their favorite male lovers began. They would paint on false eyelashes, perfume themselves and dress in the same style as young girls. It was said to make the favorites "even more delightful". (2)

A popular means of entertainment of the time sarugaku, or "dance of the monkeys" was a theatrical representation of myth or legend. The companies, under the patronage of certain great temples, gave the performances. This theater was thought to be quite vulgar until it became quite favored by the shogun. The companies that performed this were then called the No theater. This theater became known for its beautiful young male actors, who were known to share intimacy with the shoguns and nobles.

Like the No theater, the Kabuki was also a form of entertainment performed by companies on stage. Originally it was women who performed the dance, but they were banned from performing as they were thought to corrupt public morality. It was then young boys, dressed as girls who continued the Kabuki. These two theaters made popular the admiration and love of the adolescent boy. They thought that the face of a young boy to be the ideal of feminine beauty. Both theaters were involved in prostitution of the young males. "Many men were so enchanted by the charms of the young boys that they ended up swearing their eternal love and wounding their arms."(3) The "wounding of their arms" is a strange tradition of two lovers mixing their blood as a sign of their eternal love. Many rich men spent fortunes on these young actors for their love and companionship.

They got young men to sing and dance, and there were many rich men who were so carried away that they spent mad sums on them and end up in ruin. Their property disappeared as a thin covering of snow melts away beneath the rays of the spring sun(4)
The tradition of male on male love was greatly encouraged within the samurai class. It was considered useful to boys in teaching them virtue, honesty and the appreciation of beauty. While at the same time the love of women was often devalued for its so called 'feminising' effect.
"Toshiro Mifune, the popular actor famed for his characterizations of quick-witted, taciturn samurai, never uttered a word about it. Akira Kurosawa, the well-known movie director, kept inscrutably mum. Not one of the many hundreds of samurai movies made in the past century even as much as hinted at it nanshoku, the Love of the samurai. From its pivotal position in the education, code of honor, and erotic life of the samurai class, the love of youths has sunk below the level of the untouchable to the level of the unmentionable, truly "the love that dare not speak its name". But the indelible fact remains that one of the fundamental aspects of samurai life was the emotional and sexual bond cultivated between an older warrior and a younger apprentice, a love for which the Japanese have many names, as many perhaps as the Eskimo have for snow."(5)
This tradition greatly flourished in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The samurai deemed boys aged thirteen to nineteen suitable for love. This is called wakashu-do (or shudo for short), which means the way of the youth or more literally, the way of the young men.(6) There seems to be definite distinction amongst samurai homosexuality and general homosexuality in Japan. The samurai preferred a young man as supposed to a young boy, and the relationship was between the samurai and his pupil.

In reference to general homosexuality there are also fundamental contradictions. The idea of a negative image of feminism is prevalent, however the notion that they would dress the young boys to resemble young girls contradicts that sentiment entirely. This could be possible due to the patriarchal system, where women were formally banned from public events. According to Gary P. Leupp, he explains "that the prevalence of homosexuality is due to social factors such as the absence of women from monasteries and their scarcity in samurai society and the cities."(7)

It seems that since the society has kept women from having any major roles in the culture, that it was only natural for males to express emotion to other males. It also makes sense that the men were young so they would closer resemble women. This is further supported by the notion that they would use makeup and dress these young men in women's clothing.

The decline of shudo started with the westernization of Japan. At the end of the industrial revolution, homosexuality had disappeared from the social realm. Even today, the Japanese only speak of it as a deficiency or a sexual anomaly. This is a direct result of the anti-homosexual society that has been established, as it was in Europe. Modern writers and historians purposely hide this tradition from foreigners, as they do from the Japanese themselves. They have deemed it an ancient dishonor, and a sign of underdevelopment of Japanese society. (8)

With the introduction of western thought and the Christian ideal of homophobia, no one remembered that at the time of Japan's greatest glory, the traditional Japanese arts of No and Kabuki were homosexual theaters linked with prostitution. That what was called the flower of the samurai spirit and formed the real basis of the samurai aesthetic was shudo, the love of young men. We now understand that it is impossible to understand the traditional civilization of Japan without taking into account these predominant homosexual traditions.(9)


1. Watanabe, Tsuneo - The love of the Samurai: A thousand years of Japanese homosexuality - p.21

2. Ibid, p. 33

3. Ibid, p.74

4. Ibid, p.82

5. Http:// - Ed, Andrew Kallimachos

6. Watanabe, p. 48

7. Leupp, Gary P. Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa

8. Watanabe, p. 11

9. Ibid, p.130



(1) - Male Colours: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan by Gary P. Leupp. University California Press, 1996

(2) - The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality, by Tsuneo Watanabe & Jun'ichi Iwata. GMP Publishers Ltd, London 1989

(3) - The World History of Male Love, Http:// edited by Adrew Kallimachos, 1991