Homosexuality in Japan

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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? 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 (Jñanavira 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...
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