Gay Samurai

The cultural differences between Japan and, say, North America are legion. It saves time to count the similarities and just assume that everything else is different. Yet humans are such stupid things that we cannot help thinking that we are taking the same things for granted. Some of the most frustrating things about talking to Americans is that they assume everything they know apply in Japan and refuse to acknowledge that their beliefs are merely prejudices based on experiences unique to people who have spent their lifetimes in the American culture.

The most obvious of this example is the American attitudes about sex. Why do American women keep insisting to me that MY girlfriends are faking their orgasms? Firstly, it should not concern them if they are, and secondly, faking orgasms is an American thing. Japanese women fake not having them, not the other way around.

And then there is the “You men don’t understand” tripe. “We women get unwanted attention from men when we go out. You men don’t understand.” Maybe in America. When will American women ever understand that Japanese men experience the same thing?

Japan is one of those few countries in the first world that has never had “sodomy laws”. Homosexuality was never made illegal in Japan. In fact, it was quite openly practiced until Japan began to Westernize in the late 19th century. Japan today does not have gay pride parades or a very big gay marriage movement, so Westerners tend to believe (as they tend to believe about everything) that Japan is backward in this regard. Because every time Americans make just a little bit of progress, they believe they are the leaders of the world.

Japan, in fact, does not have any catching up to do when it comes to gay rights. We have had emperors who were openly gay. You might think that would be all roses and rainbows, but it is not. It means that we men also get uninvited seductions from aggressive strangers in bars just like the women do, whether we are gay or not.

I was a skinny, androgynous looking boy in my youth and I had a hard time pushing away the men who came after me all the time. I was never anywhere near as popular with women as I was with men, and it was not only annoying but humiliating. But it was made worse by the sexist attitudes in Japan back in the day. If a man was lewd to a woman, women were allowed to complain because they were girls. If some man approached me in an insulting way, I was supposed to take it like a man because I am a boy. Men tended to get openly hostile when their advances were rejected, often quite unfairly. After going through that experience, I find it irritating when some foreign woman tells me that I do not know what it feels like to be sexually harassed because I am male.

And this brings me to a conversation I had with a young Japanese lady today about the homosexuality in the samurai class. She is more than twenty years younger than me and there is such a huge cultural divide between her generation and mine that I sometimes find it mind blowing. Today I found out that she did not know that Sengoku Era warlords like Oda Nobunaga were openly bisexual.

Nobunaga had a wife, nine concubines, and twenty four children, but he also kept a stable of young boys for his pleasure, Mori Ranmaru being his favorite, and nobody of the era thought it strange. His rival Takeda Shingen also had some male mistresses, most notably Takasaka Danjo. Some love letters between notable samurai remain to this day which sheds some interesting light on sexual attitudes of the era. Overall, you get the impression that people talked less about their heterosexual affairs than their homosexual ones.

There were some practical aspects to this at the time. Men went to war for weeks or months at a time, during which they were isolated from female companionship. Sure there were prostitutes looking for business near every camp ground, but big shot war lords could not sleep with just anyone, and that harmless looking prostitute could be a spy or an assassin. It was much more preferable to bring your own sexual plaything to the battle ground, and since women were out of the question, they had to bring boys. Men also slept with each other to forge alliances, seek protection, earn the trust of their leader, or to sleep their way to the top. Under the rules of feudal warriordom, men were not allowed to complain when their leader forcibly raped them, but were expected to show gratitude for being invited into the inner sanctum of his affection, but raping women was considered an act of cowardice and, as often as not, a crime to be punished (although rape between married couples were not acknowledged as such until modern times).

When the Sengoku Era finally ended and the Tokugawa Shogunite united Japan, homosexuality did not wither and die in peace time, but was beautified and elevated to new levels. The word “shudo” is often translated to English as “homosexuality”, but the word only applies to homosexuality among the samurai class and only monogamous ones. Taking the vow of shudo was serious business. In a heterosexual marriage, you must swear to be together for three lifetimes if you were to be reincarnated as human beings. In shudo, you had to make an oath to stay together for seven lifetimes. When the samurai were ever suspected by their partner of infidelity, they stabbed themselves to prove their innocence. Infidelity had a strange meaning in those days, because many of these men were married to women. Of course noble samurai had to produce heirs whether they enjoyed it or not. Marriage to women was a political matter often decided by their families long before the samurai were old enough to know anything about it. But shudo was an act of free will and the men were bound by oath. For all intents and purposes, shudo was the world’s first form of gay marriage.

Since these men were samurai, they frequently gave their lives in order to project the purity of their love and loyalty. Their actions reached such harrowing levels at one point that leaders started calling for a ban on shudo. Although homosexuality in the upper classes continued to be practiced openly into the twentieth century, it saw a slow decline with the modernization and Westernization of Japan in the latter half of the 19th century.

Closeted homosexuality in Japan is almost as new as open homosexuality is in the West. Only a few decades ago, homosexuality in Japan was largely associated with political reactionaries, as opposed to the West where homosexuals tend to be politically progressive. Sexual coercion against men is still considered much less a crime than sexual coercion against women.

Attitudes are based on historical background. But as I found through my conversation with a younger Japanese woman today, background can change. And as historical background is lost to memory, our attitudes change as well. I hope young men are not harassed in the same way today that I once was. But I also hope that such an improvement in attitudes by gay men will not make straight men less sensitive to the troubles women are still going through.


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