The “Beautiful Way” of the Samurai - Gay relations in the Japanese Samurai Class.
[Image: Man and youth, Miyagawa Isshō, ca. 1750; Panel from a series of ten on a shunga-style painted hand scroll (kakemono-e); sumi, color and gofun on silk. Private collection. Note that the youth on the left is wearing a distinctly feminine kimono (red/pink color, double-wide obi belt). The shaved pate and long sleeves open on the inside denote the boy’s wakashū age status.]
Whatever the arguments for America’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy have been, Gay men in highly militarized scenarios are neither new nor unusual. As with many things, I stumbled across this fact when researching for a character I was writing - I knew my character was gay, and I knew he was an ex-soldier. What I wanted to know was how those things could be approached together in a slightly fantasy setting. The answer was fairly easy, and I looked at major military cultures around the world. Greece is a standout - Athens wasn’t the only city-state where men loved men, Sparta is well known for much of the same, and every single one of their men was a soldier. (Suppose you don’t see women until you come of age, and it’s not very surprising that not all the Spartan men were attracted to just their women.) The Sacred Band of Thebes is also worth mentioning, if only because we get the reasoning from Plutarch that:
”- if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their beloved, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?”
Basically, they used Gay couples as a way to strengthen their military. Because who better to serve together on the field than people who love each other more than anything? Then of course, I ran across the Amazons, who, let’s face it, probably had a high number of lesbians among their ranks. Then I ran into the Samurai - the warrior class of Japan, and I ran into something very similar to the relationships that existed in Greece.
Known also as wakashudo, “the way of the youth”, it was a practice engaged in by all members of the samurai class, from lowliest warrior to highest lord. Indeed it has been said that it would never have been asked of a daimyo, “lord”, why he took boys as lovers, but why he didn’t. This last is not a question that would have troubled, for example, the three great shoguns who unified Japan, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, or Tokugawa Ieyasu, nor for that matter Miyamoto Musashi, the author of “The Book of Five Rings.”(2)
Samurai often had younger male lovers who were apprenticed to them in order to learn how to become Samurai.
he older partner, in the role of nenja, would teach the wakashū martial skills, warrior etiquette, and the samurai code of honor, while his desire to be a good role model for his wakashū would lead him to behave more honorably himself; thus a shudō relationship was considered to have a “mutually ennobling effect”. In addition, both parties were expected to be loyal unto death, and to assist the other both in feudal duties and in honor-driven obligations such as duels and vendettas. Although sex between the couple was expected to end when the boy came of age, the relationship would, ideally, develop into a life-long bond of friendship. At the same time, sexual activity with women was not barred (for either party), and once the boy came of age, both were free to seek other wakashū lovers.
The history is roughly as follows:
In the 1100’s we see the first mentions of Kukai as the father of nanshoku. Kukai, or as he was known after his death, Kobo Daishi “the great master from Kobo”, was the founder of the Japanese branch of Vajrayana Buddhism, founding the esoteric Shingon school in the year 816 at Mount Koya after his return from China where he received the teachings and transmission from the sixth Patriarch. Great as his religious and linguistic achievements were (he also translated the sacred texts from Chinese into Japanese, and devised the first Japanese alphabet), we have no basis to credit him with the introduction of male love as well. Nonetheless legend has it that he learned about the joys of nanshoku in China (universally renowned from ancient times for its rich homoerotic tradition, ranging from imperial favorites at the court to sanctioned boy-marriages for the commoners) and then implanted the practice in Japan upon his return. Indeed, Mount Koya became synonymous with shudo in the poetry and prose of medieval Japan.(9)
Eventually I’ll post about homoeroticism in China, but I thought I’d start with the samurai. As a side note, I had wondered where the Seme/Uke divisions had started in Japan, and when looking it up, I got this: “Aleardo Zanghellini suggests that the martial arts terms have special significance to a Japanese audience, as an “archetype” of male same-sex relationships are those between samurai and their companions.” Which given that we know that Samurai homosexual relationships were strictly structured, might make a whole lot of sense.
Gay Love in Japan
Homosexuality in Japan