Side Note: Homosexuality in Japan & Haiku


In the West, until recently, homosexuality was a taboo subject. In ancient Japanese culture, however, it was never really an issue until the late 1800s. Ancient Japan was very much like ancient Greece in this respect. Male-male relationships were both common and normal, sometimes codified. In the modern era, and I suspect this could be due to the ultraconservative Western influence of the 1800s, homosexuality took on a more negative social flavor with Japanese gay men and lesbian women often concealing their sexuality; with many even marrying persons of the opposite sex. Despite the fresh wave of tolerance, it is reported to still happen today and major political parties show little interest in gay right’s issues. A stark contrast from the days of Matsuo Bashō, who himself once stated “There was a time when I was fascinated with the ways of homosexual love.”

Bashō was known to have female lovers, but his haiku points to having male lovers (or at least male love interests) as well. Historical practices identified by scholars as homosexual in ancient Japan include wakashudō (“the way of youths”) and nanshoku (“male colors”).


The Japanese term nanshoku (which can also be read as danshoku) is the Japanese reading of the same characters in Chinese, which literally mean “male colors.” The character (color) still has the meaning of sexual pleasure in China and Japan. This term was widely used to refer to some kind of male–male sex in a pre-modern era of Japan. The term shudō, abbreviated from wakashudō, the “way of adolescent boys”) is also used, especially in older works. The Japanese nanshoku tradition drew heavily on that of China.

Wakashūdo (sometimes abbreviated as shudō)

In ancient Japan, wakashū (literally “young person”, although never used for girls), was a historical Japanese term indicating an adolescent boy; more specifically, a boy between the ages at which his head was partially shaven (maegami) (about 5–10 years of age), at which point a boy exited early childhood and could begin formal education, apprenticeship, or employment outside the home, and the genpuku coming of age ceremony (mid teens through early 20s), which marked the transition to adulthood. During this period, the wakashū wore a distinctive hairstyle, with a small shaved portion at the crown of the head and long forelocks at front and sides, and typically wore kimono with open sleeves (wakiake); boys from wealthier families could wear furisode. After the coming of age ceremony, the forelocks would be shaved off, giving the adult male hairstyle (chonmage), and the boy would assume the adult male style of kimono with rounded sleeves. Although any given person would be clearly classified as a child, wakashū or adult, the timing of both boundaries of the wakashū period were relatively flexible, giving families and patrons the ability to accommodate the development and circumstances of the individual boy.

The concept of wakashū contained several partially overlapping elements: an age category between childhood and adulthood; the social role of a pre-adult or adolescent boy, usually conceived of as a subordinate (student, apprentice or protégé); and the idea of the “beautiful youth”, a suitable target for homosexual desire and the subject of wakashūdo, “the way of youths”. As boys were considered eligible for homosexual liaisons only when they were wakashū, their patrons occasionally delayed their coming of age ceremony beyond socially acceptable limits, leading to legal efforts in 1685 to require all wakashū to undergo their coming of age ceremony by age 25. In the Meiji era, the term became obsolete; the first meanings were replaced by the new term shōnen, and the last by the related construction bishōnen (“beautiful boy”).

In 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.

There can be found references to what Prof.Gary 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.

In the monastery:

Several writers have noted the strong historical tradition of open bisexuality and homosexuality among male Buddhist institutions in Japan. When the Tendai priest Genshin harshly criticised homosexuality as immoral, others mistook his criticism as having being because the acolyte wasn’t one’s own.

Nanshoku relationships inside monasteries were typically pederastic, that is, an age-structured relationship where the younger partner is not considered adult. The older partner, or nenja (“lover” or “admirer”), would be a monk, priest or abbot, while the younger partner was assumed to be an acolyte (chigo), who would be a prepubescent or adolescent boy; the relationship would be dissolved once the boy reached adulthood (or left the monastery). Both parties were encouraged to treat the relationship seriously and conduct the affair honorably, and the nenja might be required to write a formal vow of fidelity. Outside of the monasteries, monks were considered to have a particular predilection for male prostitutes, which was the subject of much ribald humor.

There was no religious opposition to homosexuality in Japan in non-Buddhist traditions. Tokugawa commentators felt free to illustrate kami engaging in anal sex with each other. During the Tokugawa period, some of the Shinto gods, especially Hachiman, Myoshin, Shinmei and Tenjin, “came to be seen as guardian deities of nanshoku” (male–male love). Tokugawa-era writer Ihara Saikaku joked that since there are no women for the first three generations in the genealogy of the gods found in the Nihon Shoki, the gods must have enjoyed homosexual relationships—which Saikaku argued was the real origin of nanshoku.

The samurai: 

From religious circles, same-sex love spread to the warrior (samurai) class, where it was customary for a boy in the wakashū age category to undergo training in the martial arts by apprenticing to a more experienced adult man. The man was permitted, if the boy agreed, to take the boy as his lover until he came of age; this relationship, often formalized in a “brotherhood contract”, was expected to be exclusive, with both partners swearing to take no other (male) lovers. This practice, along with clerical pederasty, developed into the codified system of age-structured homosexuality known as shudō, abbreviated from wakashūdo, the “way (do) of wakashū“. The 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 lifelong 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.

Like later Edo same-sex practices, samurai shudō was strictly role-defined; the nenja was seen as the active, desiring, penetrative partner, while the younger, sexually receptive wakashū was considered to submit to the nenja’s attentions out of love, loyalty, and affection, rather than sexual desire. Among the samurai class, adult men were (by definition) not permitted to take the wakashū role; only preadult boys (or, later, lower-class men) were considered legitimate targets of homosexual desire. In some cases, shudō relationships arose between boys of similar ages, but the parties were still divided into nenja and wakashū roles.

The middle class:

As Japanese society became pacified, the middle classes adopted many of the practices of the warrior class, in the case of shudō 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-19th century despite increasing restrictions. Many such prostitutes, as well as many young kabuki actors, were indentured servants sold as children to the brothel or theater, typically on a ten-year contract. 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. 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 favors. Onnagata (female-role) and wakashū-gata (adolescent boy-role) actors in particular were the subject of much appreciation by both male and female patrons, and figured largely in nanshoku shunga prints and other works celebrating nanshoku, which occasionally attained best-seller status.

Male prostitutes and actor-prostitutes serving male clientele were originally restricted to the wakashū age category, as adult men were not perceived as desirable or socially acceptable sexual partners for other men. During the 17th century, these men (or their employers) sought to maintain their desirability by deferring or concealing their coming-of-age and thus extending their “non-adult” status into their twenties or even thirties; this eventually led to an alternate, status-defined shudō relationship which allowed clients to hire “boys” who were, in reality, older than themselves. This evolution was hastened by mid-17th century bans on the depiction of the wakashū’s long forelocks, their most salient age marker, in kabuki plays; intended to efface the sexual appeal of the young actors and thus reduce violent competition for their favors, this restriction eventually had the unintended effect of de-linking male sexual desirability from actual age, so long as a suitably “youthful” appearance could be maintained.

Art and 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.

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 manywakashū. 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. Therefore, both the typical practitioners of nanshoku and the young men they desired would be considered bisexual in modern terminology. 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.

In modern Japan, wakashūdo (basically) would be known as a shōtarō complex. With homosexuality being so visible and accepted in ancient Japan, it should come to no surprise that many relationships mentioned in haiku would echo that culture. Here is one such haiku,

“A calm moon-
walking home the gay boy
frightened by the howling of foxes.”

This is a very late poem, written at a haiku party ten days or so before Bashō’s death. The subject for the night was love. Love was a required theme of the 36-verse kasen sequences (they often appeared around the 24th/25th position in the sequence). A word used in the Japanese version of this haiku is chigo, which translates as “handsome youth” and “boy-lover”, refers to the younger partner in a pair of male lovers. Foxes, in Japanese folklore, were mischievous and had supernatural powers. The speaker in the poem is escorting the frightened boy home.

I hope this was informative and helped to give you a little background on ancient Japanese culture, the times in which 3 of the 4 Greats (Bashō, Buson, & Issa) lived. Thank you for reading.