The Beautiful Way: The Roots of Homosexuality in Japan


"Modern Japan, it may be argued, is less homophobic than most Western societies." 
(Leupp, 201)

On 5 October 2005, the Osaka Prefectural Housing Corporation announced that it would allow same-sex couples to rent housing, a privilege previously limited to 'families'-a term that excluded all non-married partners.  Since same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan, rental by such couples was impossible.  This change in legislation was brought about by the efforts of Kanako Otsuji, a member of the Osaka Prefectural Assembly. ("Osaka")  At the Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade 2005, held in August, Ms Otsuji (30) publicly revealed that she is a lesbian.  She is the first government official in post-war Japan to disclose same-sex orientation.  Aya Kamikawa, a male-to-female transsexual, was elected to the local assembly in Tokyo in 2003--the first transsexual to hold such a position in Japan--and is working with Ms Otsuji to bring about further changes in Japanese domestic social policy. 

In contrast to the progressiveness beginning to take root in small pockets of local and regional government in Japan, media portrayals of homosexuality and general public awareness reflect different attitudes.  "Hard Gay", otherwise known as Razor Ramon Sumitani, is a comedian who dresses in 70s-style leather, and mocks the concept of the 'militant gay'. (Connell)  After watching him on TV for the first time, Kanako Otsuji gave her reaction: "He's not homosexual. He just uses gayness for his act, to make people laugh. I'm afraid that people will get the idea that gay people are all like that, yelling and pumping their hips."  (Tsubuku)  Razor Ramon is one of many 'talents' who have used cross-dressing and hyper-effeminate behaviour to get some laughs.  The perceptions of homosexuality in the media, and among audiences in Japan, are often stereotyped and misdirected.  "They [the media] tend to mix up same-sex desire with cross-dressing and transgenderism for both men and women. (Leupp, 6)

This paper will trace the roots of attitudes toward homosexuality in contemporary Japan, including the current and growing interest in same-sex relationships; ignorance and tolerance throughout the 20th century; negativity towards homosexuality in the Meiji Era, after the opening of Japan's ports to the West; 'male love' amongst the samurai of Tokugawa shogunate; the Buddhist tradition of nanshoku (男色); and ancient attitudes in Shinto and early Japanese society.


Homosexuality has gained notoriety, however misrepresented, in the media thanks to such comedians as the above-mentioned Razor Ramon.  In addition, the growing visibility of same-sex characters and relationships in Hollywood films and on TV has also exposed Japanese viewers to these ideas.  "Will & Grace", a popular sitcom in which one of the two main characters is a gay man, is currently being broadcast on Japanese TV.  Another medium drawing attention to same-sex relationships is YAOI, generally marketed as manga for women.   "This is an acronym formed from the first letters of the Japanese words YAma nashi [no climax], Ochi nashi [no point] and Imi nashi [no meaning] and refers to those boy-love stories in which there is less romantic plot development and more emphasis placed on the sex scenes between the male characters." (McClelland, 15)  Both the relationships and characters in YAOI manga are highly idealised, and portray the male characters as beautiful, young, and feminine.  These comics have been popular since the late 1970s, suggesting that awareness of homosexuality, at least in the abstract, is at least several decades old.  In general, however, homosexuality remains a novelty in Japan.  It is something to be mocked, laughed at, idealized, ignored or simply tolerated. 

Japan has no laws against homosexuality; there are no references to sodomy on the books, and no specific anti-discrimination legislation.  ("Lesbian")  Rather than legal limitations, however, Japanese homosexuals face societal pressures.  In addition to the lack of understanding already discussed, "There remains no place in Japanese society for the exclusively gay or lesbian individual who is unwilling or unable to sublimate his or her sexual identity and pursue the charade of marriage."  ("Lesbian")  Until quite recently, it has been common for both gay men and lesbians to marry in order to fulfill their societal obligations, and live a 'double-life', often with the knowledge or even consent of their spouse.  This is tolerated, particularly in the case of men, because of the prevailing attitude toward male sexuality.  Mark McClelland, in his article "Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan", explains it in this way:  "In Japan, it is commonly assumed that Japanese men have a variety of sexual peccadilloes and that so long as they indulge in them out of sight and do not let them interfere with family obligations, they are largely tolerated." (26) While such thinking would apply to heterosexual men as well, it suggests that homosexuality-or homosexual behaviour-is little more than a side interest or a fetish, rather than a genetic predisposition or an actual sexual orientation.

While tolerance exists alongside ignorance, there is very little evidence of animosity or negativity toward homosexuality-unless, of course, it threatens to upset some societal balance or family unity.  Furthermore, in largely sex-segregated Japanese society, very intimate male-male relationships often develop; these relationships are much closer, in many respects, than their counterparts in Western societies.  Japanese psychologist Doi Takeo draws attention to the importance of "homosocial bonds", particularly in male-male relationships involving superior/inferior roles.  The concept of sempai/kohai (先輩/後輩) in schools and companies strengthens these bonds.  While there is nothing inherently sexual about these connections, they embody "emotional links between members of the same sex take priority over those with the opposite sex," (Jnanavira) even marriage relationships.


The unspoken tolerance of homosexuality was the key concept of 20th-century Japan.  However, at the time of the Meiji Restoration, Japan experienced more vocal criticisms of homosexual behaviour.  After the opening of Japanese ports in 1854 under Commodore Perry, influences from Western morality began to take root, bolstered by the disapproval of Christian missionaries.  The Japanese elite experienced a desire to "absorb Western learning in order to obtain the respect of Western nations" (Leupp, 202).  Since homosexuality was considered 'abnormal' or 'shameful', the homophobia of the West infiltrated Japanese society, and same-sex relationships came to be viewed as uncivilised, or evidence of a lack of learning.  There were calls in the late 19th century for the criminalisation of homosexuality, and for a period of about ten years (1873-83), consensual sex between men was punishable by imprisonment ("Queer").  There is evidence, however, of "same-sex fever" (男色熱) in the Meiji Period, particularly in schools.  (Tanaka et al) With standardised education an integral part of the Meiji government's "Westernisation" process, close relationships between seniors and juniors at schools began to develop.  This factor would impact the strong "homosocial" bonds that continue to this day.

Another factor that may have contributed to the decline in the acceptance of male-male sexual relationships was the collapse of the feudal system.  Throughout the Tokugawa period, relationships were often defined in terms of status:  older/younger brother; lord/vassal; samurai/"beloved retainer" (Leupp, 42).  These bonds carried over into the modern period, in a somewhat diluted form, in the "homosocial" relationships outlined by Doi.  (Jnanavira).  Under the Tokugawa shogunate, the unity in Japan brought about a more peaceful society, and the bourgeoisie began to advance, and adopt practices of the samurai class.  One aspect of this was a growing general acceptance of "male love", a concept hitherto limited to the upper strata of society. (Androphile)

Gary Leupp, in his study of Tokugawa Japan, describes the 'trickle-down' effect within Japanese society:

Aware of monastic and samurai traditions, men of common status in the Tokugawa period would naturally have regarded homosexual desire as normal and male-male sex as a permissible and attractive activity. (57)

Despite this fact, same-sex relationships in the Tokugawa period were often on par with, and existed alongside of, heterosexual relationships.  With the growth of cities, often disproportionately populated by men, same-sex relationships were a viable option or a welcome alternative to heterosexual sex.


The growth of the bourgeoisie in large urban centres during the relatively stable Tokugawa period gave rise to a hitherto relatively unknown element:  dansho (男娼) or male prostitution.  Although never legalised--female prostitution was licensed in the mid-16th century--(Leupp, 65), male brothels and 'teahouses' flourished in Tokugawa cities, particularly in Kyoto, where young boys were said to be the most beautiful.  For the first time in Japanese history, same-sex relationships took on strong elements of "sex for the sake of sex", as traditional bonds of loyalty took on a less important role:

For the merchants and artisans of Tokugawa cities, male-male sex became largely a commercial transaction devoid of the commitments required by earlier traditions of male homosexuality. (Leupp, 59)

This commercialisation of sex would have an impact on the negative views of homosexuality during the Meiji Period.

Development in the arts had influences on homosexual relationships, particularly in the Kabuki theatre.  "Women's kabuki" was banned by the Tokugawa government and replaced by 'young men's kabuki" (若衆歌舞伎 - wakashu kabuki).  Consequently, cross-dressing young boys or onna-gata (女形) portrayed female roles on the kabuki stage.  According to Leupp "the homosexual appeal of the kabuki actor was...a brash, provocative sensuality that drove male (and female) spectators wild with desire." (130) Frequently, kabuki actors entered into loosely contractual arrangements with theatre-going townsmen, developing a patron-client type of relationship.  Kabuki theatres and male brothels were often located in the same area of town, drawing a link between these two worlds.  As the popularity of these actors spread, so did the ideas of androgyny and "gender ambiguity" (Leupp, 176-7), a factor that continues to affect Japanese perceptions of homosexuality as a sort of 'gender-bending'.

Many of the Tokugawa shogun had ongoing same-sex relationships with young boys in the courts.  Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (ruled 1680-1709) is said to have been a nanshoku-zuki (男色好き)--interested almost exclusively in males, rather than females--and had sexual relationships "with more than one hundred handsome boys" (Leupp, 136).  The tradition of samurai 'male-bonding' had developed during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, and lasted through the years of the Warring States.


A well-known example of samurai 'bonding' is Oda Nobunaga, one of Japan's most revered and powerful daimyo.  He was killed in an ambush in 1582, along with his teenaged lover, Mori Panmaru. ("Queer") This is but one example in a long history of same-sex relationships between daimyo and their "beloved retainers". (Leupp, 42) 

The love of the shogun has been referred to as "martial homosexuality" (Leupp, 27), developing out of relationships of fealty between warriors and their younger page-boys.  Often, these lord-vassal relationships were valued above those between men and women, since dandoshi (男同士) or 'male bonding' extended to the loyalty of the sword-bearer, who would fight--and even die--for his lord.  During this period, the Chinese characters (ai - love) and (chu - loyalty/fealty) were nearly interchangeable. (Tanaka et al)  In exchange for loyalty, the younger partners received education and military training.  

There is some evidence that the younger partner in these relationships assumed a 'feminine appearance'--a possible precursor to the androgyny of the later Tokugawa period.  Furthermore, the importance of same-sex relationships may have flourished, in part, due to the lack of female influence in the battlefield.  Nevertheless, many of the lord-vassal relationships among the samurai were highly valued, and exhibited strong commitments and bonds between the men.  Furthermore, they built on a long history of same-sex traditions that existed in monastic communities.


"By the time of increased samurai ascendancy from the thirteenth century, there was already a well-established homoerotic tradition in Japanese monasteries in which boys, not women, were constructed as fitting objects for adult male desire, a tradition which was well suited to the masculine ideals of an increasingly militaristic society."(Jnanavira)

Even before its adoption by the samurai, male-male love was a common practice in the Buddhist monasteries.  Sexual relationships between a monk and his acolyte were widespread.  These acolytes or 'boy-lovers' were also known as chigo (稚児), and a collection of stories known as chigo monogatari ("acolyte stories") details many of these relationships. "Though the Buddhist code of discipline prohibited monks from any sexual activity, many monks felt that this did not apply to same-sex relationships. This inspired art and literature centered on the young male ideal and the love which sprang between monks and youths." ("Homosexuality in Japan")

Although chastity among monks is one of the precepts of Buddhism, in Heian era Japan this came to be understood as sex with women.  Sex between monks and their acolytes came to be viewed as the 'beautiful way' (美道 - bido), and the idea developed that homosexuality was "a reasonable and forgivable compromise between heterosexual involvements and complete sexual abstinence" (Leupp 35).  Because Japanese Buddhism often focused on the intentions or outcomes of acts, rather than the acts themselves, same-sex involvements could be identified as a way of communicating with the Buddha, and of creating deeper spiritual bonds. (Jnanavira)

The prevalence of monk-acolyte relationships in monastic communities, particularly in the Buddhist centres of Mt. Koya and Mt. Hiei, is said to have originated with the monk Kukai (空海: 774-835), also known as Kobo Daishi, who brought back Buddhist teachings from his travels in China to found the Shingon sect.  Folk tales accrediting Kukai with the beginnings of shudo (衆道) or 'The Way of the Young' did not emerge until the 11th century, but Kukai's insistence on celibacy makes such assumptions questionable.  However, the fact that China itself had a long history of revered same-sex relationships suggests that such beliefs may have been imported from the mainland.  At the same time, as Buddhism blended with the existing Japanese indigenous beliefs, so did the acceptance of homosexuality.  ("Kukai")


The indigenous religion of Japan, Shinto (神道 - the Way of the Gods), has a very 'sex-positive ideology', with a strong focus on procreation and nature.  (Jnanavira)  Without established doctrine or a canon of religious texts, Shinto is an adaptable religion, which blends easily with new beliefs, such as Buddhism, and traditions.  Cult-like phallus worship was a major element of ancient Shinto, yet another example of the openness toward sex and sexuality.  Because there is little documentation of early Shintoism, it is impossible to identify positive or negative views toward homosexuality.  It may be argued that, since Shinto's focus is on fertility, procreation and family/community, homosexuality might have been viewed as non-productive and, therefore, unwelcome.  However, there are no evident proscriptions against same-sex relationships; even in the most conservative branches of modern Shinto, homosexuality is not viewed as a 'sin', but more as a potential threat to tradition.  On the other hand, the 1999 'marriage' of two gay men at a Shinto shrine ("Homosexuality and Shinto") suggests that even such conservative views may be on the wane.


Current attitudes toward homosexuality in Japan are largely stereotypical, but hold none of the hostility or homophobia encountered in many countries and cultures.  Based on personal experience, feelings among Japanese about homosexuality range from mild disinterest to mild curiosity.  Young women, in particular, are apt to enjoy the company of gay male friends, accepting homosexuality without particular questions about morality or abnormality.  Male-male bonds, while not necessarily erotic, are common in schools and in the workplace; 'skinship' is a common phrase among school-aged boys, referring to the physical touch with close friends, an essential element of these relationships.    

Monastic, samurai and bourgeois traditions, all of which had a strong homoerotic element, "never produced a strong current of hostility to male-male sex." (Leupp, 94)  Consequently, Japanese religious and social culture has no innate rhetoric opposing same-sex relationships.  Even recent negativism toward homosexuality is more a reaction to outside forces; attitudes shifted to suit the ideals of encroaching Western culture, in an effort to appear more refined, or simply more 'modern'.  Even arguments against homosexuality--that, for example, gay relationships do not produce offspring--tend to be much more practical than moral.

One further consideration is the Japanese notion that 'gay' is nothing but a behaviour, a pastime engaged in outside the strictures of everyday life.  In addition, because there is little active discrimination against gays, there seems to be less inclination to fight for gay rights. (McClelland, 30)  However, social rights groups such as Occur continue to rally for the cause of the gay community.        

While media-inspired misconceptions continue to dominate Japan, political awareness has grown and steps toward greater openness and equality for gay men and lesbians are being made.  Even the 'unnaturalness' of homosexuality, previously cited by Shinto conservatives, is being dismissed by scientific evidence to the contrary.  Throughout history, Japan has shown itself to be an adaptable nation, willing to make changes for the sake of progress.   Perhaps, then, it is only a matter of time before Japan recognises, accepts and--as in the past--embraces the notion of homosexuality.

by Bradley (if you require authorship for a bibliography, contact me: bjcjapan [at] yahoo [dot] ca)
28 September 2005


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