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.
During the Edo period (1600-1857), the pinnacle of samurai culture, male-male love was genuinely regarded as virtuous, admirable and heroic. The equivalent of the male-male sexual bond between a monk and his acolyte, which I reviewed in my last post, was that of the wakashū and the samurai. A lauded relationship known as shūdo, the abbreviated term for wakashūdo or “the way of the youth.”
In the samurai class it was customary for young boys to undergo martial arts training by apprenticing to an experienced male warrior. These preadolescent and adolescent-aged wakashū served their samurai lords until their coming-of-age-ceremony, which could take place any time between the ages of 15 and 22. The samurai would teach the youth martial skills, warrior etiquette, and the samurai code of honor and if the youth agreed, would enter into a sexual relationship with him.
The samurai’s desire to be a good role model for his wakashū would lead him to behave more honorably himself, while the wakashu’s agreement to have a sexual relationship with his samurai served as an expression of his compassion and his willingness to ease and share whatever angst or burden his teacher carried. Thus a shudō relationship was considered to have a mutually ennobling effect. Both parties were expected to be loyal unto death and although sex between the couple was expected to end when the boy came of age, the relationship would, ideally, develop into a lifelong bond of friendship.
Wakashu wore a distinctive hairstyle: a small shaved portion on the crown of the head and long forelocks at the front. They were permitted to wear long sleeved kimonos, bright colors, flower prints and makeup. Often employed by noble households as pageboys, in addition to looking decorative and accompanying their lord to bed, the wakashu’s duties included entertaining their lord and his guests with music, dance or poetry. But unlike the monastic chigo, a wakashu was expected to train diligently in the martial arts and fight when necessary. A wakashu might wear face powder and bright kimonos, but he still personified the embryonic stage of the fearsome warrior. These wakashu “bishōunen” were often cast in homoerotic tales, which recounted the fearless duels, vendettas, murders and ritual suicides they enacted at the behest of their samurai lord.
Surviving texts on the topic of shūdo suggest the valued characteristics of a desirable wakashū were: fair skin, long glossy black hair, red lips, flushed cheeks, and graceful movement. They also list the ages at which a boy may be loved. A boy is a “blossoming flower” between ages 10 and 13, a “flourishing flower” at the peak of beauty, between ages 13 and 16 and a the embodiment of “mature love” between 16 and 19. After 20 the young adult males were considered “falling flowers”. Between the inevitable onset of adulthood and the possibility of a violent end, the beauty of the wakashu was fleeting and they were often compared to a sakura or cherry blossom, Japan’s exquisite symbol of “extreme beauty and quick death”.
Sigh… the romantic angst that led to yaoi and fictional m/m romance is inspiring, no?
Next post: THE SHOGUN AND THE TEMPLE DANCER, where I take a look at the young shogun whose male-male romance with a lowborn temple dancer laid the foundations of Japan’s Noh theatre. Between the male/male relationships in Noh and the male brothels of kabuki, well let’s just say … there was a whole lot of “smexing” going on.
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.