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Man and youth enjoying agreeable conversation; Print from Kitagawa Utamaro's, The Poem of the Pillow (Uta Makura), 1788.

Records of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Japan date back to ancient times; indeed, at some times in Japanese history love between men was viewed as the purest form of love.

While homosexuality had never been viewed as a sin in Japanese society and religion, sodomy was restricted by legal prohibition in 1873, but the provision was repealed only seven years later by the Penal Code of 1880.[1] Exposure to Western religious thought and the desire to appear "civilized" have influenced the way that homosexuality is viewed by both the Japanese government and by the population at large since the end of the nineteenth century.


Some considerations

Historical sources

Available sources on homosexual behaviour in ancient Japan, as in ancient China, are largely literary. Although a unified kingdom of Yamato existed from about the 4th century, Japan's written historical records really begin with the Kojiki (古事記), or Record of Ancient Matters,[2] compiled in the early 7th century. While Chinese references from the 6th century BCE contain homosexual references, similar references in Japan begin to appear in about the 10th century. These references, at least initially, appear to follow the Chinese example.

Comparisons with the West

Unlike the West, in Japan sex was not viewed in terms of morality, but rather in terms of pleasure, social position, and social responsibility. While modern attitudes to homosexuality have changed, this is frequently true even today. Like the premodern West, only sexual acts were seen as being homosexual or heterosexual, not the people performing such acts.[citation needed]


Originally, shudō (衆道), wakashudō (若衆道) and nanshoku (男色) were the preferred terms during the Edo period. These terms did not imply a specific identity, but rather, their behaviours.

Currently, dōseiaisha (同性愛者, literally same-sex-loving person), gei (ゲイ,gay), homosekushuaru (ホモセクシュアル,homosexual), rezu or rezubian (レズ、レズビアン, transliterations of lesbian) and homo(ホモ) are the most common terms. While dōseiaisha is used to refer to both women and men, gei, homosekushuaru and homo are used almost exclusively in reference to men.

The term gay is almost never used in discussing ancient and historical sources because of the modern, western, political connotations of the word and because the term suggests a particular identity, one with which homosexuals even in modern Japan may not identify[citation needed].

The term homo can be used both positively and pejoratively. Nowadays the terms gei (ゲイ, a transliteration of gay) and rezu or rezubian (レズ、レズビアン, transliterations of lesbian) are the most common in the gay community, while largely pejorative terms like okama (see Slang section) are also used.

Ancient Japan

The Japanese term nanshoku (男色) is the Japanese reading of the same characters in Chinese, which literally mean "male colours." The character 色 (colour) still has the meaning of sexual pleasure in China and Japan. This term was widely used to refer to male-male sex in ancient Japan.

According to Gary Leupp, a professor of history at Tufts University, the ancient Japanese associated nanshoku with China, a country from which borrowed ideas became the basis for much of Japanese high culture, including their writing system (kanji, Chinese characters). The Japanese nanshoku tradition drew heavily on that of China (see Homosexuality in China).

A variety of obscure literary references to same-sex love exist in ancient sources, but many of these are so subtle as to be unreliable; another consideration is that declarations of affection for friends of the same sex were also common.

Nevertheless, references do exist, and they become more numerous in the Heian Period, roughly the 11th century. In Genji Monogatari (源氏物語, The Tale of Genji), written in the early 11th century, men are frequently moved by the beauty of youths. In one scene the hero is rejected by a certain lady, and instead sleeps with her young brother:

Genji pulled the boy down beside him . . . Genji, for his part, or so one is informed, found the boy more attractive than his chilly sister.

The Tale of Genji is a novel, but there exist several Heian-era diaries which contain references to homosexual acts as well. Some of these also contain references to Emperors involved in homosexual relationships and to "handsome boys retained for sexual purposes" by Emperors.

Male couple on a futon
Early 1680s; One of the very first examples of hand-coloured ukiyo-e prints in the shunga (erotic) style.
Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694); Ôban format, 10.25" x 15"; Sumi ink and colour on paper; Private collection.

There can be found references to what Leupp has called "problems of gender identity" in other literary works, such as the story of a youth falling in love with a girl who is actually a cross-dressing male.

Monastic same-sex love

Buddhist monasteries appear to have been early centres of homosexual activity in ancient Japan. It was popularly said that Kūkai, the founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect, introduced nanshoku into Japan after returning from Tang China in the 9th century. However he does not discuss this theme in any of his major works. It should also be noted that any sexual activity was expressly forbidden by the Vinaya or code of monastic discipline for Buddhist monks, and Kūkai was an enthusiastic upholder of the Vinaya. At the same time, Mount Koya, the seat of Kūkai's monastery, became a by-word for same-sex love.

However neither Shinto nor the Japanese interpretation of Confucianism contained any prohibitions. Enough monks seem to have felt their vows of chastity did not apply to same-sex relations that stories of affairs between monks and young acolytes, known as Chigo Monogatari were quite popular, and such affairs were lightly joked about, when the passions did not rise to the level of violence, which was not uncommon. Jesuits reported being aghast at the 'sodomy' that occurred among Buddhist clergy.

Military same-sex love

From religious circles, same-sex love spread to the warrior class, where it was customary for a young samurai to apprentice to an older and more experienced man. The young samurai would be his lover for many years. The practice was known as shudo, the way of youth, and was held in high esteem by the warrior class.[citation needed]

Man and youth Miyagawa Isshō, ca. 1750; Panel from a series of ten on a shunga-style painted hand scroll (kakemono-e); sumi, colour and gofun on silk. Private collection. Note that the youth on the left is wearing a distinctly feminine kimono (long sleeves open on the inside, red/pink color, double-wide obi belt).

Middle class same-sex love

As Japanese society became pacified, the middle classes adopted many of the practices of the warrior class, in the case of shudo giving it a more mercantile interpretation. Male prostitutes (kagema), who were often passed off as apprentice kabuki actors and who catered to a mixed male and female clientele, did a healthy trade into the mid-1800s despite increasing restrictions.[3] Many such prostitutes, as well as many young kabuki actors, were indentured servants sold as children to the brothel or theatre, typically on a ten-year contract.[4] Relations between merchants and boys hired as shop staff or housekeepers were common enough, at least in the popular imagination, to be the subject of erotic stories and popular jokes.[5] Young kabuki actors often worked as prostitutes off-stage, and were celebrated in much the same way as modern media stars are today, being much sought after by wealthy patrons, who would vie with each other to purchase their favours.[6] Onnagata (female-role) and wakashū-gata (adolescent boy-role) actors in particular were the subject of much appreciation by both male and female patrons,[7] and figured largely in nanshoku shunga prints and other works celebrating nanshoku, which occasionally attained best-seller status.[8]

A wakashū (wearing headscarf) sneaks a kiss from a female prostitute behind his patron's back. Nishikawa Sukenobu, ca. 1716-1735. Hand-colored shunga print.

Art of same-sex love

These activities were the subject of countless literary works, most of which remain to be translated. However, English translations are available for Ihara Saikaku who created a bisexual main character in The Life of An Amorous Man (1682), Jippensha Ikku who created an initial gay relationship in the post-publication "Preface" to Shank's Mare (1802 et seq), and Ueda Akinari who had a homosexual Buddhist monk in Tales of Moonlight and Rain (1776). Likewise, many of the greatest artists of the period, such as Hokusai and Hiroshige, prided themselves in documenting such loves in their prints, known as ukiyo-e, pictures of the floating world, and where they had an erotic tone, shunga, or pictures of spring.[9]

Nanshoku was not considered incompatible with heterosexuality; books of erotic prints dedicated to nanshoku often presented erotic images of both young women (concubines, mekake, or prostitutes, jōrō) as well as attractive adolescent boys (wakashū) and cross-dressing youths (onnagata). Indeed, several works suggest that the most "envious" situation would be to have both many jōrō and many wakashū.[10] Likewise, women were considered to be particularly attracted to both wakashū and onnagata, and it was assumed that these young men would reciprocate that interest.[10] Therefore, both the typical practitioners of nanshoku and the young men they desired would be considered bisexual in modern terminology.[11] Men who were purely homosexual might be called "woman-haters" (onna-girai); this term, however, carried the connotation of aggressive distaste of women in all social contexts, rather than simply a preference for male sexual partners.[12]

Homosexuality in modern Japan

Despite the recent trends that suggest a new level of tolerance, as well as open scenes in more cosmopolitan cities (such as Tokyo and Osaka), Japanese gay men and lesbian women often conceal their sexuality; with many even marrying persons of the opposite sex to avoid discrimination.[13]

Politics and law

Japan has no laws against homosexual activity, and has some legal protections for gay individuals. In addition, there are some legal protections for transgender individuals.

Consensual sex between adults of the same sex is legal, but some prefectures set the age of consent for same-sex sexual activity higher than for opposite-sex sexual activity.

While civil rights laws do not extend to protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation, some governments have enacted such laws. The government of Tokyo has passed laws that ban discrimination in employment based on sexual identity.

The major political parties express little public support for gay rights issues. Despite recommendations from the Council for Human Rights Promotion, the Diet has yet to take action on including sexual orientation in the country's civil rights code.

Some political figures, however, are beginning to speak publicly about their own homosexuality. Kanako Otsuji, an assemblywoman from Osaka, came out as a lesbian in 2005. Two years earlier, in 2003, Aya Kamikawa became the first openly transgender elected official in Tokyo, Japan.

Popular culture

A number of personalities who appear on television in Japan daily are gay or transgender, or cultivate such an image as part of their public persona.

In recent years, a small number of artists, nearly all male, have begun to speak publicly about their homosexuality. They often appear on various talk shows and other programmes. Dancer and tarento Kaba-chan, tarento Gakuseifuku Sakamoto, ikebana master Shougo Kariyazaki, comedian Ken Maeda, and twin pop-culture critics Piko and Osugi are among these.

Akihiro Miwa, a drag queen and former lover of author Yukio Mishima, is the television advertisement spokesperson for many Japanese companies ranging from beauty to financial products and TEPCO. Kenichi Mikawa, a former pop idol singer who now blurs the line between male and female costuming and make-up, can also regularly be seen on various programs, as can crossdressing entertainer Peter-san. Singer-songwriter and actress Ataru Nakamura was one of the first transgendered personalities to become highly popular in Japan; in fact, sales of her music actually rose after she discussed her MTF gender reassignment surgery on the variety show Boku no Ongaku in 2006.

However, some non-gay entertainers have used stereotypical references to homosexuality to increase their profile. Razor Ramon Hard Gay (HG), a comedian, shot to fame after he began to appear in public wearing a leather harness, hot pants and cap. His outfit, name, and trademark pelvis thrusting and squeals earned him the adoration of fans and the scorn of many in the Japanese gay community.

Recently, Ai Haruna and Ayana Tsubaki, two high profile transsexual celebrities, have gained popularity and have been making the rounds on some very popular Japanese variety shows.

A greater amount of gay and transgender characters have also begun appearing (with positive portrayals) on Japanese television, such as the highly successful Hanazakari no Kimitachi e and Last Friends television series.

Anime and manga

There is a genre of anime and manga that focuses on gay male romance (and sometimes explicit content) known as yaoi. Yaoi titles are primarily marketed to women, and are commonplace in bookstores (normally found in or near to the shoujo section). Various terms are used in Japan to refer to yaoi.

The blanket term "yaoi" is an acronym for the phrase "Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi", which means "no peak, no point, no meaning". (A backronym meant as a joke identifies it as "Yamete, oshiri (ga) itai" which literally means "Stop, my ass hurts!").

"June" refers to plots containing romance and drama that feature mature, adult male characters. "BL" ("Boys' Love") refers to stories that either contain younger characters, or more light-hearted romance (as an alternative to more sexual content). The phrase "shōnen-ai", translated from Japanese in the past as "boy love", is used to describe non-sexual homosexuality in either adult male characters or younger male characters. When manga or anime depicts sexual activities between young boys, or young boys with adults (male or female), it is known as "shotacon", which should not be confused with "shōnen-ai".

Among the large fan demographics in Western countries, this terminology is more or less condensed to "yaoi" and "shōnen-ai"; "yaoi" is used in reference to graphic descriptions of homosexual sex and/or adult drama, and "shōnen-ai" is used in reference to romantic situations with younger characters.

Gei-comi ("gay-comics") are gay-romance themed comics aimed at gay men. While yaoi comics often assign one partner to a stereotypical heterosexual female role, gei-comi generally depict both partners as masculine and in an equal relationship.

Lesbian-romance themed anime and manga is known as yuri (which means "lily"). Yuri is pretty much a catch-all term, much more so than yaoi; it is used to describe female-female relationships in material marketed to straight men, straight women, or lesbians, despite significant stylistic and thematic differences between works aimed at these different audiences. Another word that has recently become popular in Japan as an equivalent of yuri is "GL" (meaning "Girls' Love" and obviously inspired by "Boys' Love"). Unlike yaoi, yuri is aimed at a more widespread audience. There are a variety of yuri titles (or titles that heavily integrate yuri content) aimed at women, such as Revolutionary Girl Utena, Oniisama E, Maria-sama ga Miteru, Sailor Moon (most notably the third season, as well as the fifth season), Strawberry Shake Sweet, Love My Life, etc; and there are a variety of yuri titles (or titles that heavily integrate yuri content) aimed at men, such as Kannazuki no Miko, Strawberry Panic (although it was written by Sakurako Kimino, a female author), Simoun, and My-Hime. There are two manga magazines currently running in Japan that focus solely on yuri stories: Comic Yuri Hime (which is primarily aimed at women), and its newer spin-off, Comic Yuri Hime S (which is primarily aimed at men).

While more yaoi manga exists, more yuri tends to be animated.

Japanese gay slang

The following is a list of Japanese gay slang from various periods. General time period is given where information is available.

Anaru (アナル)
Literally, "anal" sex. In current use
Barazoku (薔薇族)
Literally "Rose Tribe," Barazoku was the name of Japan's first and longest-running gay magazine, which ceased publication in 2005. Its name became synonymous with "gay" (see Friend of Dorothy).
Bian (ビアン)
Rezubian is a transliteration, and bian a contraction, of the English word lesbian. Unlike the similar word rezu (see below), bian is commonly used only by lesbians to describe themselves and others, akin to the use of the word "dyke" in modern America, as rezu is used occasionally as a pejorative and frequently by popular non-lesbian media.
Futsū (普通)
Literally "normal": heterosexual, a heterosexual person.
Jani, Janī (ジャニ, ジャニー)
From the English name Johnny. Refers to young, slim, boyish-looking, "cute" men (compare twink). Taken from the name of a talent agency, Johnny & Associates, known for producing boy bands such as KinKi Kids, Hey! Say! JUMP and Smap. Jani-kei (ジャニ系, ジャニー系) means "jani-type."
Kagema (陰間)
Literally "hidden room," this term was commonly used in the Edo period to refer to male prostitutes whose customers were also male, and was roughly synonymous with faggot or Greek kinaidos (cinaedus in Latin). A kagemajaya (陰間茶屋) was a tea house specializing in male prostitutes.
A portmanteau of the words ketsu and manko literally meaning "ass cunt," this word usually describes the anus of a "passive" male bottom. Compare "mangina"; "man-cunt."
Kuma (熊, クマ)
A bear (a hairy, sometimes overweight man). In current use. Kuma-kei (熊系, クマ系) means "bear-type."
Kusamanko (腐マンコ)
-lit: Rotten cunt - A woman who is interested in boys-love and gay culture to an abnormal extent, usually an otaku. Among some circles it is used to refer to all women regardless of the degree of attention they pay the culture.
Nekama (ネカマ)
From the words "net" (Internet) and "kama" (see O-kama, below), this word can refer to men who pretend to be women in online chat rooms, or to gay men who engage in cybersex.
Neko (ネコ)
Literally "cat" (and sometimes written with the kanji for cat, though more often in katakana, as above), this word refers to the bottom, or passive/receptive partner, especially in anal sex. In lesbian relationships, the woman who expresses more traditionally feminine traits is the neko; see "femme" in English usage. The etymology is unclear. In current use.
Nicho (にちょ)
The term given to Shinjuku Nichome by those who frequent it and are familiar with the turf.
Nonke (ノンケ)
Heterosexual, a straight person. Though often mistaken by English speakers as a transliteration of "non-gay" in fact the term is a combination of the loan word non (ノン) and the Japanese word ke (気), here meaning persuasion. Thus literally translated, the term means "not of that persuasion."
Nyū dandi (ニューダンディ)
"New dandy." Used to refer to cross-dressing women or butch lesbians.
Nyū hāfu (ニューハーフ)
From the English words "new half," this term is used to refer to transsexuals, mostly male-to-female. Sometimes used pejoratively.
Okama (お釜, おかま)
Literally "a pot, a kettle", this word, always with the honorific prefix "O-", refers to a gay man, especially one who is viewed as effeminate or a drag queen. Can be pejorative. The word originated in Edo period slang for the anus. In current use.
A term for the burnt rice that sticks to the bottom of a cooking pot, this currently-used word refers to the straight, female friends of gay males. See Fag hag.
Onabe (お鍋, おなべ)
Literally "a pot," this word refers to lesbians or occasionally to female cross-dressers. Often pejorative. Invented in modern time as a female slang counterpart for "okama".
Onee (オネエ)
An older, feminine gay man. Literally "older sister".
Onnagirai (女嫌い)
Literally "woman-hater." This term was used in the Edo period to describe a man who preferred male erotic and romantic companionship exclusively. Similar to misogynia (misogyny).
Rezu (レズ)
Rezubian is a transliteration, and rezu a contraction, of the English word lesbian. (Similar to "lez".)
Riba (リバ)
Ribāsu (リバース) is a transliteration from English word, reverse. Used for person who is versatile.
Seme (攻め、セメ)
Seme comes from the word "semeru" (攻める) which means "to attack." Refers to the dominant partner in the relationship (as opposed to uke (受け、ウケ)). In use.
Sēfutī sekkusu (セーフティーセックス)
Transliteration of "safety sex" - Safe sex.
Tachi (立ち, タチ)
The top, or active/insertive partner, especially in anal sex. In lesbian relationships, the woman who expresses more traditionally masculine traits is the tachi; see "butch" in English usage. There are various theories about the etymology of the word, but it is widely thought to come from a term in kabuki. In current use. The tachi is also the name for a kind of sword.
Uke (受け, ウケ)
From the verb "ukeru," to receive, this term is used for the "passive" or receptive partner in anal sex. In current use.

See also


  1. ^ Anne Walthall. Review of Pflugfelder, Gregory M., Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse 1600-1950. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. May, 2000.
  2. ^ Japanese Folktales - Yamato-Takeru Slays the Kumaso Brothers
  3. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (1997). Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. University of California Press. pp. 70–78, 132-134. ISBN 0520209001. 
  4. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (1997). Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. University of California Press. pp. 69, 134-135. ISBN 0520209001. 
  5. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (1997). Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. University of California Press. pp. 77. ISBN 0520209001. 
  6. ^ Gay love in Japan - World History of Male Love
  7. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (1997). Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. University of California Press. pp. 90–92. ISBN 0520209001. 
  8. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (1997). Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. University of California Press. pp. 88. ISBN 0520209001. 
  9. ^ Japanese Hall
  10. ^ a b Mostow, Joshua S. (2003), "The gender of wakashu and the grammar of desire", in Joshua S. Mostow, Norman Bryson, Maribeth Graybill, Gender and power in the Japanese visual field, University of Hawaii Press, pp. 49–70, ISBN 0824825721 
  11. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (1997). Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. University of California Press. pp. 95–97. ISBN 0520209001. 
  12. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (1997). Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. University of California Press. pp. 102. ISBN 0520209001. 
  13. ^ Elizabeth Floyd Ogata (2001-03-24). "'Selectively Out:' Being a Gay Foreign National in Japan". The Daily Yomiuri (on Internet Archive. Retrieved 2006-08-30. 
  • Bornoff, Nicholas. Pink Samurai: Love, Marriage & Sex in Contemporary Japan.
  • Leupp, Gary. Male Colours: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1997.

External links

Sexuality in ancient Japan

Sexuality in Modern Japan

English Sources


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