Homosexuality in Japan Japan has had a history of homosexuality for over a millennium and today it is less ‘homophobic’ than most western societies. The long tradition of homosexuality was prominently active throughout the Tokugawa times until the hurried modernisation during the Meiji period, displacing the homoerotic culture with the influences of Christianity.
This failure to maintain homosexual traditions midst the transformation has become reflected in the distorted views of homosexuality in Japanese society today; openly gay people face institutional discrimination, at the same time, homosexuality often permeates in popular Japanese culture in the form of comedy. So where exactly does Japan stand between Holland and Afghanistan?
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Both the influences from the past and the present have created an environment for homosexuals in Japan today to deny their oppression by silencing their identity, ultimately causing them to struggle in shaping themselves into an appropriate ‘gay identity’ as an orientation, instead of a conceptualised behavioural option. Japan’s first homosexual or nanshoku (often referred to as bido, the beautiful way) influences can be traced back to at least the 9th century, when it was celebrated as part of Japan’s bourgeois culture through religious texts, literature and in popular theatre. Leupp 27) In 806, when Japanese history hardly existed, Buddhism as well as a flood of other influences such as written language, literature and Confucian philosophies including sexual beliefs were introduced from China. (Crompton 413) Evidence of reference to nanshoku could also be found in the literary world as early as in the times of ‘Tales of Genji,’ Japan’s first novel. Professor Loui Crompton claims that sexual affairs between men are ‘…nowhere in this world reflected more brilliantly than in ‘Tale of Genji’ by Lady Murasaki. The first of these occur when the protagonist Prince Genji sleeps with the younger brother of a woman whom he had been rejected by (Jnanavira 10). ‘Well, you at least must not abandon me. Genji pulled the boy down besides him. The boy was delighted, such were Genji’s youthful charms. Genji of his part, or so one is informed, found the boy more attractive than his chilly sister. ‘ (Calimach 2) According to Professor Mark McLelland, Tokugawa Japan has probably the best recorded tradition of male same-sex love in world history. McLelland: Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan 20) In those times, homosexuality was a behavioural option or a do (a way) and even a social status, as opposed to homosexuality as an orientation in today’s world. However, an extreme change was taken place shortly after the arrival of Commodore Perry. Japanese ports opened to international trades after 300 years of closure, and western influences became dominant.
Living up to international demands, Japanese intellectuals followed the evolutionary path to modernise, especially since Japan had no space to suffer such humiliation China faced in the boxer rebellion; industries flourished as Japan adapted fukokukyouhei, or the Strong military and wealthy nation policy. (Fujita 174) At the same time, government policies had to reflect global trends to meet international expectations to prove that Japan had deserved a more equitable treaty.
Soon the shogunate was abolished and political power was returned to the Emperor with the Meiji restoration of 1868. However, these efforts to follow international trends meant that social changes had to be adapted as well. The Samurai tradition of male love as a bond between warriors had to be expunged, when finding that foreigners were shocked by the customs of homosexuality, as one Jesuit missionary documented in his report the horror of Japan’s acceptance of male love; ‘…even worse than adultery is their great dissipation in the sin that will not bear mentioning.
This is regarded so lightly that both the boys and the men who consort with them brag and talk about it openly without trying to cover the matter up. …Japanese, who consequently do not realize how abominable and wicked is this sin.. ‘ (Crompton 412) The reformers quickly accepted these western views and began to obliterate the ideals of nanshoku in the military and religious grounds. Soon western laws on homosexuality were briefly adopted ??? in 1873 homosexual relations (sodomy or keikan) were made a criminal act in Article 266 of the Meiji legal code. Crompton 443) However, this article was removed from the code in 1881, and ever after the new constitution was adapted at the end of Second World War, there were no changes in the official policy regarding the same-sex sexuality. Therefore, even in today’s world, Japan remains one of the few countries without sodomy laws, however, the immediate acceptance of western cultural values allowed space for nanshoku tradition to survive in the underground. The question then becomes the legitimacy of homosexuality in Japan today; the contrast between the homophobic western societies that successfully made a sexual evolution in 1960’s, to Japan, a country with a culture that originated with homosexual ideas but has yet been able to accept homosexuality as an identity. One way to understand this is by examining the Japanese law, which views homosexuality in an entirely different light from other cultures. Since homosexuals in Japan do not face conventional discrimination or persecution by the government, their rights as people are legally protected, unlike foreign countries; Japanese homosexuals are not punished for or discriminated against by being gay or engaging in same sex desires as long as one remains to live a secret life. McLelland: Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan 39) At the same time, Japanese law does not recognise other rights such as marriage, social security, inheritance, or welfare. (Hiroyuki 7) In addition, Japan does not have a specific legislation to protect human rights. For example, according to Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender programme at Human Rights Watch, ‘… a landlord could evict somebody because he is gay and there is no law that you can refer to for protection. ‘ (Kato 1) In other words, there are no specific laws in Japan to legislate against or for the rights of sexual minorities.
Taniguchi argues that by lacking these laws, Japan ‘has ignored sexual minority issues, although it has not explicitly criminalised homosexual behaviour. ‘(Taniguchi 2) On the other hand, there have been voices that would ‘rather just remain silent instead of becoming a cause of friction in society. ‘(Hongo 3) The magnitude of how some people choosing to remain in where they are is emphasised by McLelland, claiming that this behaviour is only natural since no such thing as Dennis Altman’s theory of ‘global queering’ really exist. McLelland: Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan 1) While the west has had an enormous emphasis on identity politics which tend to imply the importance of a community, there has never been a serious discourse regarding this issue in Japan in the past. Therefore, McLelland points out, that it would not make sense to use the ‘western’ model of gay activism in Japan that is to openly speak of gay rights.
This point is further emphasised by the American anthropologist Jennifer Robertson: ‘As long as an individuals’ sexual practices do not interfere with or challenge the legitimacy of the twinned institutions of marriage and household, Japanese society accommodates ??? and in the case of males, even indulges- a diversity of sexual behaviours. This tolerance is extended even to homosexual sex, which, although it is not to be spoken about, is easily available in Japan, where there is no legislation relation to sex between men or sex between women. (McLelland: Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan 10) After all, tolerance towards homosexuality is easily available in Japan. While there have been an increasing number of legal debates regarding same-sex love rights, there are other voices by gay men that have evaluated their identity not according to these western models of what it is to be gay, but rather by silencing themselves by pursuing marriage and carry on homosexual affairs discreetly behind a facade of conformity. However, despite the issues of the aforementioned, it must also be noted that homosexuality is widely accepted in popular media.
For example, the depiction of homosexuality in shoujomanga (comic books for girls) has made male to male love a common experience for women in literature. Specifically these comic books feature homoerotic relations between bishoonen, (beautiful boys) and women who read these comics often fantasise these characters as the ideal male figure. (McLelland: Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan 3) The association of homosexuals in these manga can be understood through Japan’s economic transformation by tracing back to the late 70’s when Japan was about to enter the bubble economy.
Sankoo or the three idealistic requirements for men (high educational status, high income, and tall height) were often found and fulfilled in bishoonen. According to McLelland the bishoonen suggests a such beauty that is even desirable to females; ‘…they have tall, slender bodies, high cheek bones and pointed chins, wide eyes and long flowing hair…they behave with feminine matter, expressing the emotionality and vulnerability. (McLelland: Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan 5) Thus, when women overlap themselves with the beauty of bishoonen and sought for Sankoo, the closest figures were found in homosexual men. According to Wim Lunsing, these comic books created a false imagery of gay men being beautiful and pure, thus these women should be blamed for the ‘feminised’ definition of homosexuality. (Lunsing 4) However, the largely conflicted issue of homosexuality in association with femininity, cross-dressing and transgenderism are due to a few individuals featured in the entertainment world.
Television shows such as ‘Oneeman’s’ (a merged word of oneesan meaning sister and man) is aired on prime time to depict the lives of okama (transgender or transsexual) celebrities or ‘feminised men. ‘ As a result, the term okama has been used to stereotypically define homosexuals who are scorned on television because of their feminine nature. In other words, the dominant representation of the alternative lifestyle automatically is associated with okama, and the connection between cross-dressing, gender, sexual orientation and identity is habitually ignored.
Though McLelland argues that this ‘gay-boom’ in Japan has made an increase in the recognition and the discourses dealing with homosexuals, he fails to address the type of recognition it has received. (McLelland: Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan 7) To counter McLelland, it could be argued that the television is merely a publication that sustains and reinforces the idea that homosexuality is, in fact, a disreputable thing and is best when it’s hidden; otherwise one is left to be defined as a okama, a scorned occupation for the entertainment world.
Therefore, Japanese gay men face the dilemma of being openly gay, with the discriminatory term such as okama, or staying in the closet ??? and this has triggered the mentality that if attempts to ‘come out’ about sexual preference ties one down to choosing a term to describe themselves, they would rather secretly engage in homosexual sex which ironically, as previously mentioned, in popular arts and literature, is accepted. Thus, this vicious cycle is another reason for Japanese gay men to view the western model of being ‘openly gay’ with scepticism.
In another study by Hibino Makoto, he discusses that homophobia results from the androcentric society, where men who aren’t masculine are nothing – and that one way of proving one’s manliness is by distancing themselves away from homosexuality. (Hibino 8) In other words, homophobia is used as a justification tool for masculinity. Furthermore, an example can be in an article by Asahi Shinbun, the word karera is specifically used by a male author to describe Ni-chome to deliberately distance himself from the notion of homosexuality. Izumi 1) From the various discourse regarding homosexuality, it is apparent that homosexuality has continuously existed in Japan throughout the beginning of history until today. However the frames in which these interaction has occurred has significantly changed over time. The idea of homosexuality has transformed from nanshoku, a term prominently used during the Tokugawa times to show bonds between males, to okama, a term used as a reference to the stereotypical representation of homosexuals today. This obvious transformation occurred has resulted in the public to accept homosexuality conceptually, through popular arts, but not in reality.
This gap has misled the public understanding of differentiating between ‘feminised men ‘ and ‘men who love men’ and as a result naturally have left options for gay men in Japan to stay in the closet; they would rather secretly pursue their sex life than coming out and facing conventional discrimination and stereotypes. However, for homosexuality to be accepted in Japan, gay men must first recognise their oppression by wrecking the silencing of their identity to change the definition of homosexuality to a behavioural option rather than an orientation, as it was in the pre-Meiji periods.
Though it is virtually impossible to have a singular universal gay identity, it is important for Japan homosexuals to open up to the western gay culture so that in fact, some day, homosexuality can be truly accepted as it once was. Work Cited Calimach, Andrew. World History of Male Love, “Homosexual Traditions”, The Beautiful Way of the Samurai, 2000. Web. 14 Jul 2010. ;http://www. gay-art-history. org/gay-history/gay-customs/japan-samurai-male-love/japan-samurai-homosexual-shudo. html; Crompton, Louis. Homosexuality ; Civilization. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. Print.
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