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 a series of posts. I hope you’ll join me on this fascinating journey.
Romantic stories about love between males and the ideal of the bishounen, a beautiful, desirable, androgynous boy, have a long tradition in Japan. The earliest examples of the bishōunen appear in the ninth century Japan in the form of the chigo. These boy attendants or acolytes of both Shinto and Buddhist monasteries performed minor religious duties and served as personal servants and often, sexual partners to their respected monks.
During the ninth century in Japan, both the Shinto and Buddhism religions regarded sex as a divine and good thing. There was no explicit right and wrong way to achieve sexual pleasure. Rather, followers who practiced sex followed a set of principles that were subject to the golden mean: The deed which causes remorse afterwards and results in weeping is ill done. The deed which causes no remorse afterward and results in joy and happiness is well done.
Bishounen were eligible for chigo-hood from between the age of seven to their coming of age ceremony. In the medieval era this ceremony occurred when the boy was about fifteen. In the Edo period the boys were in their late teens to early twenties. Many bishounen who became chigo were from aristocrat or samurai backgrounds and were sent to monasteries for an education. Others were young boys hoping to be ordained and some were servants-for-hire who were simply purchased by their brother monks.
Encouraged to grow their hair long, wear silk robes, and use makeup, the ideal chigo possessed grace, nobility and cultured achievements, particularly in music and poetry. Chigo were quite revered and occasionally fights broke out between monks over an especially desired acolyte. Love stories inspired by the most exquisite chigo usually portrayed the boy as a son of an aristocratic family, the eminence of his background providing a rationale for his abilities.
Here is an excerpt from one of the more famous of the chigo-monk love stories written in the fourteenth century. A Long Tale of an Autumn Night tells of monk who dreams of a bishounen and sees the boy at a rival temple the following day:
“He saw a youth of about sixteen. He was wearing a gossamer robe embroidered with a design of waves and fishes over an undergarment of pale crimson, the skirts of which fell long and gracefully from his slender hips. Evidently unaware that he was being watched, the boy came out from behind the bamboo screen into the garden and broke a spray of blossoms from a branch which hung low as though heavily laden with snow. As he walked softly around the game court with the blossoms in his hand the ends of his long hair, swaying as gracefully as sea grasses, became entangled in the branches of a willow and held him bound. He turned around abstractedly, and the Master saw the very face, the same expression that, ever since his dream, had so captivated him that he had not known where he was.”
That’s a beautiful and romantic image, no? Gorgeous youth, flowers in hand, his long hair holding him captive… sigh. The story goes on to reveal that the chigo the monk had fallen for was the son of a famous aristocrat. In the ensuing tale the monk and the acolyte find love despite being from rival temples, but one day the chigo disappears. The monk blames the rival temple, which leads to the war of all wars and the monk’s temple is destroyed. Suddenly the acolyte reappears, having been kidnapped by tengu, a supernatural being that is generally a harbinger of war. Crazed by guilt, the chigo commits suicide. Devastated and filled with remorse, the monk becomes a hermit.
Yes, those early male-male romances were definitely not HEA’s.
Next post: THE WAKASHŪ AND THE SAMURAI where we discover how the samurai and their young apprentices explored the non-existence sexual boundaries during the Edo period.
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.