HISTORY – Homosexuality – Pre-modern Japan

The Gay Of The Samurai

All About Homosexuality, Buddhist Monks, Samurai, and The Tokugawa Middle Class


As it turns out, pre-modern Japan was exceptionally accepting, even encouraging, of male homosexuality and bisexuality. Much like that time we found out that bushido is actually modern-day made-up bullshit, this might surprise you. To be honest, it surprised me, too. I came upon this information while researching an article (still to come) about the current state of the LGBT community in Japan. I wanted to understand the overwhelming societal pressure placed upon people who are LGBT to, well, not be. My hypothesis was that I would find my answers in Japan’s ancient and medieval past, assuming that Japan would be like the West in this regard. I would point to the Japanese version of Judeo-Christian anti-homosexuality beliefs and call it a day. I thought it would be easy.

As is often the case, it turns out I was completely wrong. Japan’s pre-modern society was one that not only tolerated homosexuality and bisexuality, but celebrated and even idealized it. In fact, it appeared to be the rule, rather than the exception, for a majority of Japan’s pre-modern history. How in the world did Japan go from celebrating homosexual lifestyles to being in denial about LGBT issues even existing?

To understand that, we must traverse the annals of history. Let’s go back to the very beginning, right at the moment when Japan was created by the gods.

Illustration from the anonymous seventeenth century work Shin-yu-ki, “Book for the Friends of the Soul”.

Sex, And The Creation Of Japan

Japan’s first main religion, Shintoism, is said to have been established as far back as 1,000 BC. Its first known texts, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan), were completed in 712 AD and 720 AD, respectively. Both relate the creation myth of Japan. In addition to this, the Nihon Shoki records some of Japan’s early history.

Nothing in the Kojiki or Nihon Shoki mention anything about homosexuality, unless you count the fact that the first three generations of deities described in the Nihon Shoki are all male (one Tokugawa-era author joked that the conception and birthing of these generations must have been logistically difficult). But, maybe this is the point. There is no overt approval of homosexual behavior, but there is no condemnation, either.

Let’s step back a moment, however, and think about what the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki say about sex. The basic question we’re faced with is: does Shintoism view sex as inherently good or inherently evil? Part of the answer lies in the Kojiki—here’s an excerpt in which the deities Izanagi and Izanami create the islands of Japan by, well, totally doing it.

At this time Izanagi-no-Mikoto asked his spouse Izanami-no-Mikoto, saying: “How is your body formed?”

She replied, saying: “My body, formed though it be formed, has one place which is formed insufficiently.”

Then Izanagi-no-Mikoto said: “My body, formed though it be formed, has one place which is formed to excess. Therefore, I would like to take that place in my body which is formed to excess and insert it into that place in your body which is formed insufficiently, and thus give birth to the land. How would this be?”

Izanami-no-Mikoto replied, saying: “That will be good.”

In the Shinto creation story, sex proceeds the birth of a nation and her people. In Judeo-Christian religions, the acknowledgement of human sexuality and their banishment went hand in hand. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that nearly every mention of the word “sex” in the Christian bible is accompanied by ideas of punishment or shame.

I’m not saying that one religion is better than the other, or that either is “right” or “wrong”. I’m simply trying to give you context for what’s to come. Much like the ancient Judeo-Christian religions in the West, Shintoism provided the basis for the belief system in Japan, even as the religion evolved and was influenced by other groups and societies.

So, as you might have guessed, Shintoism was quite sex-positive in general. Only, there was the nagging concept of sexual “pollution” (not entirely analogous to the Christian idea of “sin”), which Pflugfelder, author of Cartographies of desire: male–male sexuality in Japanese discourse, describes below:

While male-female coitus was seen as inherently defiling, obliging those (and in particular males) who had engaged in it to undergo purification before entering in the presence of the gods, Shinto authorities did not so characterize male-male sexual practices, showing far less preoccupation with the theological implications of such behavior than their European counterparts. No explicit condemnation of male-male sexuality appears in the Shinto canon, which in fact remains silent on the topic altogether.

This difference in the perception of male-male sexuality versus male-female sexuality, in addition to Shintoism’s general message that “all sexual love is unconditional good,” helps to set the tone (on this issue) for Japan’s second main religion, Buddhism.

Samurai Sex

The Introduction of Buddhism

Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 7th century, well over a thousand years after Shintoism had taken root. In theory, traditional Buddhism viewed sex very differently from Shintoism. Sex in Buddhism was linked to desire, something that practicing Buddhists were supposed to overcome. By doing this successfully, one could gain enlightenment and thus escape from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Buddhist monks and priests were also supposed to take vows of celibacy. This, of course, included both heterosexual and homosexual activity. That being said, there were definite ideas about which was worse. Heterosexual activity was actually the greater offense, as Buddhism considered women to be “evil and defiling” by nature. Homosexual activity amongst practicing Buddhists, on the other hand, was treated more like a “lapse in self control.” Take this Vinaya (a regulatory framework for the monastic community of Buddhism, created by the Buddha himself) for example:

At that time the venerable Upananda, of the Sakya tribe, had two novices, Kandaka and Makhaka; these committed sodomy with each other. The Bhikkus were annoyed…: “How can novices abandon themselves to such bad conduct?”

They told this to the Blessed One… [who declared] “Let no one, O Bhikkus, ordain two novices. He who does is guilty of a dukkata offense.”

Gary Leupp, in Male Colors, The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan, explains:

Here their sexual involvement is seen as the result of their environment; perhaps they share a cell with the monk who ordained them. Although their behavior is plainly regarded as “bad conduct,” they are apparently not punished for it. Rather, the monk responsible for them is censured.

Once again, let’s compare this to Judeo-Christian beliefs, where the hierarchy of “bad sex things” is the opposite way around. Christian priests weren’t supposed to partake in heterosexual activity, but male-male sex was a crime for which one could be severely punished. In Buddhism, male-male sex only resulted in a slap on the wrist. Kind of a “Hey, it happens to the best of us, don’t worry about it guys!” sort of thing. Leupp continues:

Only the holiest and most disciplined of Buddhist priests were thought capable of overcoming sexual desire and faithfully observing the Buddha’s command to abjure all sexual activity. The rest of the clergy, it was widely assumed, would yield to temptation with male or female partners.

Basically, the attitude was one of “If you can’t figure out the whole celibacy thing in this lifetime, well, there’s always the next one!” Ascension to nirvana is much less of a one-time shot than admittance into heaven, after all.

I should clarify that I’m speaking about Japanese Buddhism for the purposes of this article. Some Indian and Chinese Buddhist sects had radically different ideas about the nature of sex and homosexual relationships, but they were far enough away that they had little to little to no impact on thinking in Japan.

So were there any actual rules about sex in Japanese Buddhism? Well… kind of. The “five training principles” of Buddhism do include a section on sexual conduct, but the wording of that section is incredibly vague:

“I take the rule of training not to go the wrong way for sexual pleasure.”

On the subject of this principle, Dharmachari Jñanavira, author of Homosexuality in the Japanese Buddhist Tradition, argues, “[u]nlike the Christian penitentials of the medieval period, Buddhist texts do not go into great detail explicating exactly what the ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ ways regarding sexual pleasure actually are. As with other actions, they are subject to the application of the golden mean: ‘[t]he deed which causes remorse afterward and results in weeping is ill-done. The deed which causes no remorse afterwards and results in joy and happiness is well done.’”

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