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Friday 25 July 2014


Being gay in Japan: Homophobia & Universalism?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 19th September 2009

Japan has a rich and flourishing history of male homoerotic art and literature, so why is it that LGBT progress in that country is so glacially slow?

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Gay Japanese art
Indeed, Japan's key moment was when it turned its back on Christianity. It was the first time that Europeans faced a technologically advanced and centralised state on a par with its own,which led to some devastating consequences for persecuted Japanese Catholics thereafter, as the nobility persecuted them. Catholic Jesuit homophobia offended many daimyo (members of the nobility) and samurai when these missionaries first made contact in the sixteenth century. This contributed to the Shogunate military viceroyalty's decision to outlaw such religious proselytisation in the seventeenth century.

Japan's indigenous Shinto religion had no such sexual strictures, and is an essentially nationalist and ritualistic faith. While incest and zoophilia were criminalised, male homosexuality wasn't. In fact, male love (nanshoku) wasa traditional subject for romantic poetry, art and literature. Even the great essayist Lady Murasaki could acknowledge that her Tales of Genji protagonist could receive intimacy and love from an adolescent male admirer (c1020- 1030 CE).

Imperial courtiers, Buddhist monks and acolytes, samurai, the mercantile middle class and others partook of the ethos that male love had a romantic and aesthetic quality that was 'superior' to heterosexuality. At the same time, Japan'scities regulated, but did not prohibit, heterosexual and same-sex sex work. Kabuki actors were often famed for the beauty of their adolescent male actors, as much as their stylised performance. In the thirteenth century, adult/adolescent male relationships were codified into mentoring obligations for the older partner.

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A gay Japanese movie
During the Tokugawa period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were often friendly debates about the merits and disadvantages of nanshoku compared to heterosexual relationships, and homoerotic love poetry, focusing on monk/acolyte relationships, kabuki actors and samurai brawls related to them, were staples of such literature, verse and art, and even the Shoguns participated.

In 1853, the Shogunate collapsed after US Commodore Perry forced entry to Japanese ports. This led to sudden, traumatic awareness that Japan needed to become a centralised and industrial state if it was to survive as a sovereign society, unlike neighbouring China under the disintegrating Manchu Empire.

Fifteen years later, Japan underwent the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which effectively recentralised political authority under the Emperor and his Court, five centuries after the weakness of the Kyoto-based Heian Emperors had led to the dominance of the military overlordship of successive Shoguns. Western Victorian puritanism led to the development of Japanese reticence and avoidance when it came to open discussion of homosexuality. However, it only criminalised homosexuality for a brief period (1873-1880), before a French legal advisor persuaded the government to repeal such Penal Code provisions. Even so, the reticence lasted, and few modern LGBT Japanese are aware of the candour of the past.

Today, Japan has active gay bars and saunas, but there are no national anti-discrimination laws that cover Japanese LGBTs, apart from some metropolitan centres. In the latter, there is some provision for employment and accomodation discrimination. Similar obliviousness shrouds same-sex couples and family formation- although gender reassignment surgery is government-funded. Even a celebrated gay Japanese figure like Yukio Mishima was forced to be less than candid when it came to public profession of his homosexuality.

This may be attributable to the postwar Liberal Democratic Party, which has held power for the last half-century since Japan's postwar defeat and intensive technological development and economic growth. However, the former Opposition Japanese Democratic Party won the last election several weeks ago and has equal opportunity and anti-discrimination clauses prepared, although at the level of generality. That said, Japan lacks the homophobia of many western societies... but on the other hand, it may not be free from heteronormative expectations that force many lesbians and gay men into straight marriage and childrearing.

Recommended:

Joseph Hawkins: Japan's Journey into Homophobia Gay and Lesbian Review: 7:1: (2000): 36-39.

Gary Leupp: Male Colors: The Construction of Male Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan: Berkeley: University of California Press: 1995.


Craig Young - 19th September 2009

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