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.
In 1853 a United States navel delegation, headed by Commodore Matthew Perry, steered a fleet of modern steam-powered warships into Uraga Bay of Japan and demanded entry. At this time, the decline of the Edo period, Japan was a militarily weak, had little technological development and was controlled by hundreds of semi-independent feudal lords. 250 years of isolation had turned the Tokugawa shogunate into a corrupt and incompetent government and despite a storm of opposition, by 1854 the Shogun opened the doors of Japan.
Subsequent trade agreements and treaties favored America and Europe and allowed foreigners exemption from Japanese law, and the newcomers took full advantage. A mini revolution followed with samurai, nobles and trade merchants all jockeying for favorable position and control in the “new” Japan, but by 1868 the shogunate government was replaced with the imperial Emperor Meiji. The Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) was underway.
With the new regime, the Japanese elite desired to "absorb Western learning in order to obtain the respect of Western nations" and began the process of modernization by deliberate study, borrowing, and adaptation of Western political, military, technological, economic, and social forms.
Western morality swiftly took root in Japan. Bolstered by the disapproval of Christian missionaries who were horrified at the “same-sex fever” they saw in Japan, new words and new attitudes were introduced about male-male sexuality and they had little to do with “romance.” Initially medical terminology was used to express “abnormality, wrongness or illness” as Westerners strove to communicate the repugnance of an act for which Japan had no language. Homo what? But social reform and the desire to be equal drove the Japanese society to adapt, and soon same-sex relationships came to be viewed as uncivilized, or evidence of a lack of learning.
Japan’s new trend for publicly regarding its traditional male-male sexual relationships as vulgar was helped along by the deterioration of the shudō ideal in the late Edo period. While wakashudō, the tradition of an adult male forging a mentorship with a bishounen that involved sex, provided a degree of protectiveness and integrity toward the wakashu, the rapid growth of the merchant class and danshoku, male prostitution, corrupted the shudō ideal. Plus, with the shaving of the wakashu’s age defining forelocks, a bishounen’s coming-of-age ceremony could be deferred for years. Bishounen who were able to maintain their looks could be perceived as wakashu well into their late twenties and even thirties. This destroyed the impropriety of the “adult” male sexing a man who was the same age or older than himself and pretty much put the nail in the shudō coffin. The arrival of Christian missionaries became the hammer.
Western theory positioned the bishounen as an abnormal, feminized figure who must be firmly redirected on the path of proper masculinity lest he become a permanently perverted “invert”. This Western idea of the homosexual as an effeminate passive who attempts to seduce the masculine heterosexual male failed to mesh with the Japanese image of the active, adult man who courts pretty youths. While rare Edo prints showed bishounen with erections while engaged in shudō, it was widely held Japanese belief that the wakashū were not gaining pleasure during the act of being penetrated. A bishounen allowed his bottom to be penetrated by his adult lover because it was a selfless and virtuous act to relieve the stress of his more experienced and thereby more burdened partner.
The Japanese were confused by Western introduction of the homosexual and of the “invert.” The idea that a man would willingly offer his bottom to other men for the pleasure of the sex act was baffling and there were no legal precedence for such occurrences. Still the Japanese strived to follow the Western ideal and in the late 19th century called for the criminalization of homosexuality. For about ten years (1873-83), consensual sex between men was punishable by imprisonment, but that reform was repealed and male-male relationships became private affairs of the now out-of-sight brothels in the red-light districts.
Despite all social reforms, the subject and practice of male-male eroticism did not simply vanish with the Meiji Restoration. Male-male sex motifs were still visited in the pages of magazines well into the 1880’s. The popular humorous magazine “Maruchin,” founded in 1877 was quite influential and reported on gossip from the red-light districts, entertainment worlds, and general goings-on around town. It’s contents appealed to a widespread audience, including literate urban members of the artisan/merchant classes, and newly Westernized intellectual elites. This magazine often featured humorous stories, art and senryū, (haiku-like verses that reflected the quirky side of the life), within its pages. A popular theme was that of the bantō (clerk) and the detchi (apprentice) of commercial shops.
The bantō wielded considerable authority over other employees and was frequently portrayed in senryū indulging his lechery with his young male coworkers. One reason attributed to the survival of the bantō and detchi relationship during the Meiji period, was the continued economic vigor of the commercial sector and its traditional system of apprenticeship. Here is an example of a work that the Maruchin magazine might hold:
In the servants' room
Who is too pretty.
For a while this comedic portrayal of male-male eroticism was dispersed to adjust Japan to the West’s homosexuality ideals, but by the turn of the 20th century, "same-sex fever" visited a different quarter in the Meiji Period—that of schools, military academy’s and colleges.
Next post: THE ROUGHNECKS AND THE SMOOTHIES, where I reveal how a new interpretation of the traditional practice of shudō, “boys love,” splits the image of the bishounen in two.
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.