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.
In my last post I wrote of the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and his relationship with the bishounen, Zeami the founder of Japan’s Noh Theater. During the final years of the Ashikaga family rule, the Ōnin War began. This ten-year war left a power vacuum that launched a century of anarchy in Japan. Tremendous provincial wars broke out, and from the 1450’s to the 1600’s the bishounen survived by entertaining soldiers in much the same way they had the monk and the samurai--with music, dance and sexual diversions. When the wars ended, most bishounen moved into the cities and continued to ply their art of entertainment. The beautiful boys were still patronized by samurai and priests, but now men of the merchant class took up the practice of shudō (boys love). The bishounen entertained in teahouses, brothels and theaters and by 1617, wakashū kabuki was well established in Kyoto and Edo.
Kabuki theatre was founded in 1603 by a female temple dancer named Okuni. She travelled with an all-female troupe made up of prostitutes and outcasts who she herself trained. The troupe performed a jazzed-up of version of a Buddhist dance in the countryside surrounding Kyoto. Okuni and her troupe became known for their Okuni kabuki: sexy short plays involving men visiting teahouses for trysts with prostitutes. This early form later evolved to Yujo kabuki (courtesans kabuki), which were basically variety shows designed to show off the girls at the major brothels. By 1629 the government banned women from the stage claiming women displayed in such a manner destroyed public morals. Women could still ply their trade in the teahouses and brothels, but not on stage.
With the demise of yujo kabuki, wakashū kabuki, already a popular venue became even more so. I will take this moment to reiterate that wakashū are adolescent bishounen between the ages of seven and twenty-two. Early wakashū kabuki performances centered on skits and song-and-dance routines that depicted suggestive situations. Between acts the wakashū would mingle with the audience and provide such “personal services” as the patrons might desire. Boys too young or too unskilled to act were dubbed iroko (color children) and although they were required to be in the employment of a registered theatre, many of them never set foot on stage. In addition to the actors who were available after-hours for a suitable fee, a large contingent of “apprentices” could also be engaged from teahouses in the theatre district.
The wakashū performer’s artless innocent and youth were quite advantageous and desirable qualities for engaging a patron. Payment from a patron enriched the troupe and secured the wakashū’s spot in the company. As the performer grew older, they learned to use their beauty, acting skills, charm and fashion to maintain their wakashū allure and attract more patrons. Successful bishounen were trendsetters in fashion for both men and women of the merchant and court classes. Their costuming, hairstyles and choreography quickly became vogue. They performed both male and female roles in their skits and dances but never lost sight of the bishounen ideal. Rather, bishounen who exemplified the female mystique yet kept their wakashū appeal were revered.
As wakashū kabuki increased in popularity, violent confrontations over bishounen entertainers sprang out among the different classes of men who desired them. The wakashū acts of boys playing girls (onnagata) created such amorous and seductive imitations that audiences were driven mad with desire and the resulting show of appreciation overpowered social class differences. The priests and samurai class, who had a long tradition with the practice of shudō and a genuine connection to the wakashū, were being challenged by the merchant class who had no respect for the traditional boy-pledge agreement between a wakashū and his chosen patron.
Violence erupted as the line between shudō and danshō (male prostitution) intermixed and the ruling government sought to appease the social feuds by attempting to curb the allure of the wakashū. From 1640 through 1667, the wakashū kabuki performer was subject to an extraordinary amount of ever-changing bans as the government attempted to smother the charms of these entertainment bishounen. One of the most profound of these edicts separated those bishounen who played female roles (onnagata) from those that played male roles (yarō), no longer could a bishounen play both.
A second shocking decree stated that every entertainment wakashū must have their maegami (front hair lock) shaved. While this may not seem such a big deal now, the front hair locks of the wakashū were their identifying mark of youth. To shave it literally stripped the bishounen of their status as professional boy courtesans. It destroyed a deeply entrenched sign for the longstanding tradition of love between adult men and boys. Before the ban, these locks were only severed at a boy’s coming-of-age ceremony and signified that he was no longer eligible for shudō engagement. Many, samurai and wakashū alike, complained that the act was like that of cutting off a cat’s ears and the wakashū mourned the loss of a very real part of their beauty.
But they soon rallied and invented a new style that shortly became an erotic symbol for the lost maegami: the use of silken scarves to cover the shaved area. Initially they used simple dark cloths and later the purple bōshi to cover their lack of locks. But gradually the fashion morphed to creative and stylish head wear with fluttering scarves and wispy fringes as flamboyant and tantalizing as their missing forelocks. In this triumphant way bishounen overcame each challenge and ban issued and the wakashū kabuki performers continued to delight patrons, shaved heads or not. The history of the wakashū kabuki theater is vast and I have only touched upon the amazing perseverance of the bishounen and Japan’s 400-year-old art of Kabuki theatre.
Next post: GENROKU AND THE FLOATING WORLD as I reveal how Japan’s shudō practice spread to the masses with the golden age of the Edo period and the introduction of the 17th century publishing industry.
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.