Asian Gay Culture and Western Influences – Part 1

Today we start a series of ten articles examining the relationship between homosexuality and the forces of history that have shaped the way various Asian countries now regard sexual relationships between men

Japan – Rampant Amputations and The Rising Sun

Sex! Yes, we all think about it. My problem is that when I’m in Asia I just think about it too much. But then I also have a habit of wondering “why” things are as they are. My friends tell me I worry too much, that I should just accept life as it comes and get on with enjoying it. Yet always at the back of my mind there is that nagging question: “Why is it so much fun here in Asia, so much easier – and a great deal less so back home?”

It’s more curiosity than worry, I guess. I just love the whys and hows of history wherever it is that I travel. Why did the mighty Byzantine Empire slowly collapse and die after a millennium when it had been the most magnificent the world had seen? How was it that Pizarro with total forces numbering not many more than 300 Spaniards could wipe out the Incas, an Empire of some 16 million people?

But I digress from my subject. Back to sex! The “why” here is quite simple. Why is it that whilst Europe was enduring many centuries during the Dark Ages when for the vast majority of people sex was a means to procreation and probably not much more, many of the peoples of Asia were enjoying sex for pleasure? Why was homosexuality unashamedly woven into the fabric of some cultures? Why was being naked in front of others all but a totally natural act? And why has this all changed?

Let’s start this personal exploration with a curious tale: The Disappearing Dicks.

Look back in time and it is clear that in classical Greece and Rome the male body as depicted in statues and vases was naked and proud. Well, naked – yes. As for proud, I’m not sure I’d be so happy. The size of those manhoods is decidedly on the small side! Still, by the time the Renaissance came along, artists and intellectuals were finally able to look back and quickly adopted many of the ideas from the rediscovered classical era. One was a renewed appreciation of the naked body, especially the male nude, with a flowering of art and sculpture from artists like Cellini, Donatello and Michelangelo.

Today, take a visit to the famous Vatican Museums. As you walk amongst all those classical statues of the male nude, something is missing. Actually, “things” are missing. Not a dick in sight! Many artistic treasures have been crudely emasculated. On others, those modest dicks have been replaced by a fig leaf. Why?

By the 1500s the Catholic Church was an ambitiously corrupt and licentious organization. Then along came a rebellious priest, Martin Luther, who founded the new Christian offshoot of Protestantism. Luther and his followers wanted to get the Church back to its strict, pious, moral, incorrupt principles. Catholic Popes realised they had some cleaning up to do. Pope Paul IV decided anything that looked immoral would just have to go. Thus dicks on male nudes in the Vatican were out and plaster fig leaves were in. Not to be too hard (sic) on the male figures, the decision eventually extended to all genitalia, buttocks and woman’s breasts – all the fun bits, as one blogger nicely put it. Thus began the great cover-up.

Thanks to a succession of anti-dick Popes, all male statues in the Vatican and across European Churches were henceforth to become dick-less. In 1982 one Donovan Essen visited a newish building in the Vatican Museums where he was shown a wall of stone penises – over 100 limply hanging as if by a thread! Yet on his return in 2010 to show his wife this curious display, the exhibit had disappeared. When asked about its new location, the attendants professed no knowledge. Clearly this is a mystery which author Dan Brown could profitably take up. “The Vatican and its Missing Male Members” certainly makes an intriguing title!

But what has an increasingly dick-less Europe to do with Asia?

At roughly the same time as this anti-dick movement was in full swing (ooops), mariners and adventurers had taken to the high seas. The increasingly “civilized” world of Europe – meaning its princes, nobles and emerging rich merchant class – had grown particularly fond of the tea, spices and the arts and artefacts of the exotic orient. Unfortunately for our tale, whenever the mariners sailed out to sea a flock of missionaries would follow. Thus when Portuguese traders reached Nagasaki in Japan in 1543, it only took six years for a band of Jesuit missionaries to arrive in their wake.

Further south, the Spanish had just taken control of the Philippines. Soon Franciscan and Dominican monks sailed out from Manila bound for Nagasaki. By the start of the Shogun Era in 1606 there were an estimated 300,000 Christians in Japan, although one reason for conversions had nothing to do with Christ! The Portuguese sold local leaders saltpeter used in the making of gunpowder, vital in the local wars of that era!

Apart from trade, the foreigners found themselves as appalled that homosexual relationships were regarded as perfectly natural, even widely celebrated, as they were by the shunga (erotic woodblock prints), many of gay couplings. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun, had no time for foreigners of any description. He ordered Japan closed to all non-Japanese (with the exception of a small group of Dutch traders) and the missionaries were all sent packing. Japan got back to its old ways, which included traditional public bathing and sexual liaisons between the samurai class and younger lads.

260 years later, the shogunate bit the dust. Thanks to American battleship diplomacy, the Meiji Emperor was restored to the throne. Naturally, the Protestant churches in America salivated at the thought of all the oriental souls to be saved for Christ. A new invasion started. Along with western dress came the western world’s far stricter ideas of morality. It would take another 80 years and a World War before the Americans could fully enforce their ideas. Casual attitudes to sex and open bathing, a ritual performed from time immemorial, were not to the liking of the conquering power and its religion. Japan had to change!

As we shall see in the next installment, China had played a role in early sexual teachings in Japan. And it was on the south shores of Chinese territory that Portuguese missionaries first landed in 1555. Odd to think that tiny little Macau – eventually to develop its own red-light district around the infamous Rua da Felicidade (literally “Street of Happiness”) – would become home to the first Catholic Jesuit centre in Asia, a base for further conquests in Asia – with China to the north as the main prize.

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