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 my last post I wrote of how the collapse of the Japanese feudal system and the influence of the West drove Japan’s ambition for modernization, resulting in the Meiji Restoration. The new government’s reforms to adopt the West’s “morality and civilization” ideal, set out to modify a ten-century long tradition in which male-male eroticism was not only acceptable, but was thought of as a virtuous masculine pursuit. Social class may had been legally abolished, but regional and political views still differed as each citizen sought to find their place in this new Japan. By the 1870’s education, especially that of post-primary school students became the topic of much public discourse. As symbols of the new Japan and its future inheritors, male students in particular became the focus for much discussion and male-male sexuality proved to be a key topic of such dialogue.
As the general populace fought to find its place in new Japan, the new dichotomy of male sexuality fought itself out in the schools. With standardized education an integral part of the Meiji government's "Westernization" process, close relationships between seniors and juniors at schools, military academies and universities began to develop. School dormitory systems that housed younger and older boys together coupled with the still-fresh remnants of the samurai bushidō code created a lively reinvigoration of same sex practice. While school authorities did not endorse the practice of senior students storming the freshmen sleeping quarters after lights out, the punishments for those caught were not harsh. Older students would generally have two to three younger students as lovers and offered their “guidance and protection” for the duration of the sexual relationship.
By the 1880’s male students were divided into two classifications of masculinity: the nanpa or “smoothies”, boys interested in fashion and women, and the koha or “roughnecks”, male students who idolized military figures, liked sports and rejected women under the credo that association with females endangered one’s masculinity. These two styles of masculinity encompassed all aspects of each sector’s behavior including apparel, mannerism, past-times and speech. Smoothies tried to over win women by dandifying themselves, wearing kimonos and white socks, and personified the new intellectual elite. Roughnecks wore coarse garments, rolled up their sleeves and tended to swagger in an overt declaration of masculinity that emulated the samurai ideal… and they pursued bishounen students.
The bishounen or beautiful boy was still viewed as the objectified beautiful boy, neither male nor female; simply a symbol of the idyllic beauty and the student body accepted that as such he would be pursued. In truth, in the early fight for the new vision of masculinity within Japanese schools, the entire student body acknowledged that the koha displayed the proper attitude of masculinity. As the nanpa with the help of social reforms, began to gain ground as the new face of masculinity, regional prejudice came into effect with allusions that most roughnecks were from the southwestern regions. The Satsuma domain, (Kagoshima) the province of the Satsuma Rebellion (1877) was one such region, and bigotry about the Satsuma populace reared its ugly head as aggression against powerful Satsuma government officials grew. The Satsuma Rebellion deserves its own post, but for the purposes of this post: Saigō Takamori was the leader of this “last” attempt to find a place for the unemployed samurai in Japan’s new civilization; the movie, The Last Samurai, is loosely based on his story.
But another powerful work came from the Satsuma region in the form of the book Shizu no odamaki (The Humble Man’s Bobbin). This romantic tale details the story of two 16th-century warriors, one younger, one older, who fall in love and engage in nanshoku (eroticism between adolescent and adult males). In the story their romantic bond provides them the will to heroically wage battle after battle until they die in each other’s arms in a great final rebellion. The contents of Shizu no odamaki illustrate the proper way of engaging nanshoku according to the samurai code of conduct, and swiftly became a cult favorite for roughnecks and others who were slow to let go of the samurai honored traditions. No one is certain who penned what came to be a rare treasure that pays homage to Japan’s practice of nanshoku, but it is rumored that it’s author may have been a female. Here’s a lovely bit of this early BL tale that soothed a nation on the rise:
“As the shadows lengthened, the night sky was bathed in a gentle rainstorm and the air perfumed with the fragrance of spring flowers. No longer able to restrain himself, Daizō clasped Sangorō’s sleeve, As raindrops pattered outside the window, Daizō pledged his love anew with each caress of Sangorō’s snow white skin”
With their avid pursuit of young bishounen the roughnecks became the subject of much attention and brought a new interpretation to the practice of shudō. Same-sex fever swept through the schools and into the cities and writers of the period seized upon the exploits of roughnecks to captivate their readership. Turn of the century newspapers provide numerous stories of gangs of roughnecks and teenage juvenile delinquents prowling the streets of Tokyo seeking out bishounen, preferably from upper class families to abduct and rape. Roughneck fights and showdowns were attributed to rivalries over beautiful boys.
Sensationalistic accounts of student misbehavior served to confirm existing anxieties over the period’s youth culture, but also amplified them. Young bishounen were taught stay home after dusk and a warning whistle system was implemented; upon hearing a whistle a few streets away, bishounen would rush to find safety. Moral panic erupted when the roughneck’s gang behavior appeared to have a vampire affect; once indoctrinated into an organization, the new recruit would set out to ensnare his own beautiful prey. By late 19th- and early 20th-century scandal-rags reported nearly weekly on sensationalized stories of attempted kidnappings, gang fights and other crimes all laid at the feet of adolescent nanshoku-enthusiasts, whipping up a decades-long moral panic.
Next post: ARE WE NOT MEN? I reveal the quelling of the panic and the rise of the bishounen with the publishing of propaganda fiction, forerunner to modern Boys Love.
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.