YAOI, M/M ROMANCE AND THE HISTORY OF THE BISHOUNEN
While researching my yaoi romance novel, Dojo Boys: Dragon & Crow, I was as astounded at the depth of history relating to romanticized sex between males, which led to Japan’s current yaoi empire. I was also struck by how the development of yaoi and male-male romance in the East and West appeared to reflect the liberation of women in both cultures. What is now a rapidly growing group of females who read, write and relish in romantic tales of homoerotic sex between men, may in fact have started as women’s quiet rebellion against each society’s antiquated ideals of females.
The Japanese history of the bishōunen and of romanticized sex between men who are not necessarily homosexual is vast and I’ll be sharing some of what I learned through this series of posts. I hope you’ll join me on this fascinating journey.
The Meiji Era was one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of nations. Japan achieved in decades what the nations of the West took centuries to develop---a modern nation with modern industries, modern political institutions and a modern society. But the turn of the century panic over the roughneck behavior made it increasingly difficult for the new civilized Japan to maintain that male-male eroticism was a permissible alternative to male-female sexual practices.
In my last post I mentioned that the new intellectual elite began to lay blame for roughneck behavior on the southwestern province of Satsuma. This region was known for its fierce samurai clans and the formidable Saigō Takamori, the leader of The Satsuma Rebellion on which the film, The Last Samurai is loosely based. In 1874 Saigō had established a private academy to help support the growing number of unemployed samurai who were idle due to the social reforms of the Meiji Restoration. Soon 132 of these paramilitary schools were training students in the traditions of bushido, weaponry, artillery and tactical training.
Besides finding a place in traditional schools and on the streets of Tokyo as roughnecks, many Satsuma-trained students found a place in Japan’s expanding navy, which was frequently referred to as the Satsuma navy because it’s chief officers was of the Satsuma samurai clan. The Satsuma navy was admired for its rigidly disciplined and skilled officers, but also for the outstanding beauty of its cadets. It was purported that the naval force chose only the most “attractive” recruits to fill its infantry and that male-male eroticism was practiced among its members. A samurai trained student, from the Satsuma province, Tōgō Heihachirō, rose to prominence to lead Japan to victory in the decisive naval battle of the 1904 Russo-Japanese War.
In 1912 the Meiji period came to and end and the Taisho era, lead by Emperor Yoshihito began. The Taisho era marked a brief flowering of democracy in Japan. Universal male suffrage was established for men (not women) over 25. The climate in this new era had given the people a voice, and citizens' interest and participation in Japanese politics and social activism increased. Pro-labor laws were passed and the rights of workers were improved. The public showed renewed interest in Western culture. Modern art, magazines, movies, the new department stores, jazz, and the cafe society and Marxism sprang up and the bishounen found a new status as a mobo.
Mobo (modern boy) and mogo (modern girl) were terms used for the young rebellious beauties that frequented jazz cafes and emulated the styles and manners of the Roaring Twenties that were taking in place in the major cities of the world. Dancing, drinking, smoking, and affairs between patrons of the chic cafes were choice excitements for this new breed of bishounen. Both female-female and male-male sexuality were both now considered perverse and the Japanese public revealed an appetite for sexual perversity and the erotic grotesque in both literature and art which would continue throughout the Showa period (1912-1945). But by the 1920’s the public grew disillusioned with the growing national debt. Students, university professors, and journalists, bolstered by labor unions and inspired by a variety of democratic, socialist, communist, anarchist, and other Western schools of thought, mounted large but orderly public demonstrations.
As part of the effort to raise Japan’s young men to a life of loyal service and devotion to their emperor, publishers began to put out boy’s magazines, full of morally uplifting stories of heroic young men who do good deeds and diligently care for their families. The bishounen ideal was split into two: the beautiful boy who used his charm to serve the country and the beautiful boy whose looks harkened a desire to return Japan’s feudal past. The former image was much preferred and propaganda magazines began to showed luminous “smoothie” bishounen decked out in a pristine school uniform next to a bishounen clad in an old-fashioned samurai-style kimono.
By the 1930’s male-male relationship and the ideal of the bishounen was viewed as a type of valorous bromance, more spiritual than physical. Literature, art and magazines again helped spread this this pristine ideal of beautiful boys bonding on a “spiritual plane” of love and comradeship. Many of the stories depicted an older boy taking a younger boy under his wing, with dazzling illustrations showing scenes of boys fighting and heroically dying while trying to save one another from a proposed villain or deadly force of nature.
The magazines and books were intended for and read by young men. But packed with exciting stories and illustrated by exquisite pictures of beautiful boys, young women also developed a taste for this literature. Having experienced a small taste of freedom before once again being relegated to the role of sexless sister … helpless female to be protected status … is it any wonder that Japanese girls would sneak into their brother’s rooms, steal his magazines and imagine going on the daring escapades described in these boys’ rags?
Meanwhile, post World War II Japan saw an influx of American servicemen and other transients, which created a market for bishounen services that no longer fit the he’s-a-kabuki-actor-we-swear teahouse model. The English term “gay” became the Japanese gei, and was used to describe effeminate, passive men, especially those who performed as singers, dancers or hosts in the newly-emergent gei ba (gay bar).
By the 1950s, a distinction was drawn between the gei boy, who affected an androgynous look influenced by French gamine actresses, and “ladyboys”, who were overt cross dressers. The gei ba slowly transformed into flashy clubs with shows that catered to foreigners, men who liked foreigners, and sightseeing straight people. Like New York’s Harlem in the 1920s, Tokyo’s gay district in the 1950s and ‘60s became a fashionably decadent place for an adventurous night on the town, where men and women could admire the spectacle put on by teams of pretty boys.
In the early 1960’s author Mari Mori, wrote three novellas imbued with male homosexual passion, which inspired a generation of female authors to create the Yaoi genre in Japanese contemporary manga. Mara Mori was the daughter of noted Japanese novelist, Ogai Mori, whose semi-autobiographical erotic novel Vita Sexualis created a stir in when it was published in 1909. Her books, A Lover’s Forest, I Don’t go on Sundays, and Bed of Fallen Leaves embrace the nanshoku ideal of older men and younger men in a sexual relationship. In each story the older man is extremely rich, powerful and wise, and spoils the younger boy. In The Lover's Forest, for example, the older man, Guido, is 38 or so, and Paulo is 17 or 18. Paulo is extraordinarily beautiful, prone to lounge lazily, and has a lack of willpower in all but the field of pleasure.
Although Mari wrote for a general literary audience, her most ardent fans were women, and her works, along with Western films such as Maurice and My beautiful laundrette, began to create a female audience for artistically pleasing stories of male-male romance. All three of Mari Mori’s novels follow the same plot: an impossibly beautiful teenage boy is taken in by a wealthy and sophisticated older man, who keeps him in decadent luxury until the relationship is broken up by jealousy and violent death. Noted for her lush prose, Mori expounds on her boys beauty like so:
Pale, transparent skin, glossy hair; luminous eyes, which “seemed to emit pale lavender flames” Full lips “like fruit ripened by kisses”; languorous movements and flirtatious glances.
Mori’s infatuated lovers surround her bishounen with exotic Western extravagances: custom-tailored suits, French soap, German cologne, imported cigarettes, caviar, martinis, Rolls Royces and nightclubs and bring to mind images that are now commonplace in Japan’s modern yaoi [manga, anime and literature] industry.
In the light of my research, I cannot help but feel that her books also speak of a Japan wooed by Western ideals.
Ripe with the dazzle of civilization
The appetite numbs
Ravenous for the fleeting specter
… beauty lost.
The sakura blooms...
That’s it folks. Sure, there is much more that led to the modern yaoi and male-male romance genre, but truthfully I have run out of time. These posts have led you to the mid 20th century; a quick Wiki to Yaoi, or Slash fiction can reveal the rest of the tale. Thank you for everyone who hopped with me on this fascinating journey into of The History of The Bishounen.
Alex A. Akira is the author of the yaoi romance series Dojo Boys, racy tales of young, male martial artists navigating some unorthodox and adventurous paths to find love. The prequel of the e-book series, The First Misunderstanding and the first two-volume box set of Dragon and Crow are available at Amazon.com.