Japanese history is well known for celebrating homosexuality. Well, what we in the West call homosexuality. During the feudal era, homosexuality wasn’t an identity as it is today. The celebration of male love changed with many other aspects of their society during the Meiji Reformation. Like the protections single mothers and women enjoyed, homosexuality declined as Japan pushed to break out of the Tokugawa isolation and westernize.
Homosexuality in Feudal Japan
During the Tokugawa Era, which lasted from 1603 to 1868, homosexuality was a part of being a samurai. Buddhist monasteries embraced it, and male brothels associated with Kabuki theaters flourished. Male homosexuality was thought to be useful for teaching young men virtue, honesty, and an appreciation for beauty. During this time, particularly in the samurai class, relationships with women were devalued. They were only necessary for the continued existence of the household (Furnham & Saito, 2009). Men who were attracted to women were thought to also be attracted to young boys and female impersonators (McLellend, 2000b). Homosexuality among men was a normal characteristic of being samurai. Men who loved other men were still expected to have wives and families. Homosexuality wasn’t the binary it is now. It was only a small aspect of a person’s character and responsibilities.
What about lesbians? I couldn’t find information about lesbianism during the Tokugawa period. Japan was, and still is, a male-oriented society. Women had roles they were expected to play. I am certain many samurai and peasant wives were also lesbians. Like same-sex male relationships, women’s relationships were not to interfere with their duties to the family. The heart of Japanese womanhood is to be a good wife and mother. Marriage was the defining characteristic of adulthood for men and women. Even in modern Japan, singles are not considered full adults (Chalmers, 2002).
Anyway, during the Meiji Restoration homosexuality’s prominence declined. Homosexuality remains acceptable in modern Japan as long as it isn’t flaunted. It is simply not spoken about (Furnham & Saito, 2009; Nakagawa, 2010). Despite this acceptance, exclusive homosexuality is seen as something to fear and despise. Unlike the United States, this fear doesn’t come from religion. After all, Buddhist monks practiced same-sex relationships. Exclusive homosexuality is despised because it breaks gender expectations and social roles demanded by a culture that centers on family.
Discrimination in Modern Japan
Although the samurai class embraced same-sex relationships, it didn’t interfere with a man’s responsibilities to head a family and have children. In modern Japan, marriage is still seen as establishing a household rather than a romantic relationship. Because of this, many Japanese gay men willingly marry women and do not see it as a contradiction to their sexual preference. In fact, Japanese media lauds gay men as perfect marriage partners for women because gay men are considered to be more feminine and sympathetic to women’s subordinate social position (McLellend, 2000a). Many Japanese homosexuals hide their orientation in order to avoid disappointing or troubling their friends and family (Furnham & Saito, 2009). Remember, Japanese society and identity revolves around the family. The family comes first, above the desires of the individual. Well, this is the ideal anyway.
Openly gay people risk social discrimination despite Japan lacking laws against the orientation. Families have been known to disown gays and lesbians because of the dishonor they bring to the family and their inability to continue the lineage (Furnham & Saito, 2009).
Lesbians, in particular, face discrimination. Women who are not satisfied with marriage and childbearing are often seen as lacking and less than a real woman. Lesbians and unmarried gay men are not seen as adults. Lesbians experience intense pressure to appear heterosexual and interested in men (Chalmers, 2002). They also lack the historical precedents that gay men enjoy. To ice the cake, parents are thought to be the reason why a girl is a lesbian. Her sexual orientation is seen as a parental failure that can and should be corrected (Nakagawa, 2010).
Like in the United States, Japan has slang words used to refer to gay men and lesbians. Okama refers to the butt and used to refer to gay men. Obviously, this term is suggestive of anal sex which is considered the definitive sexual act engaged by gay men. Okama is also used to refer to transgender men. Homosexual men are stereotyped in a similar way as in the US. They are seen as feminine and promiscuous. Lesbians are called onabe and seen as the opposite of okama. Onabe are stereotyped as being masculine in dress and behavior. They understand themselves as a man, only without a penis (McLelland, 2000b; Furnham & Saito, 2009).
Same-sex marriage steps closer toward acceptance. Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward became the first locale to recognize same-sex partnerships as the equivalent of marriage, guaranteeing the identical rights married couples enjoy. However, the ordinance isn’t legally binding (Associated Press, 2015). Japan’s constitution prohibits same-sex marriage in Article 24 (Newswire, 2015):
Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.
Boy’s Love and Yuri
Boy’s Love stories also called BL or YAOI are some manga fan’s first exposure to Japanese ideas of homosexuality.
Only the ideas found in BL are wrong.
Boy’s Love is not considered gay literature. The genre, better known by its acronym YAOI ( ochinashi, iminashi – translates to “no point, no meaning”), are stories that emphasize sex scenes between bishonen, beautiful boys, rather than focusing on romantic plot development. Written by female authors for female readers, the stories do not reflect the struggles and view points of Japanese homosexuals. Rather, the stories are fantasies of what homosexual love means. The characters are androgynous and behave in a feminine manner (McLelland, 2000a).
Likewise, yuri does not represent lesbian identity. Yuri focuses on sexual encounters between beautiful girls. Written by men for men, they explore male fantasies of lesbianism rather than actual lesbian relationships. Of course, in both genres there are certain to be a few stories that touch on homosexual people’s concerns and challenges.
Japanese Homosexual Identity
Like many touchy subjects Japanese culture slips around, homosexuality lacks the hard boundaries it has in Western culture. There isn’t a strong sense of identity attached to sexual orientation. Gay men willingly marry and have children without seeing the act as a contradiction of their identity. It is simply their duty as a Japanese man, regardless of whether or not he is attracted to women. Likewise, lesbians are expected to marry and have children. Many do just that. Their attraction toward the same sex isn’t the defining part of their personality. Of course, this is all just generalization based on surveys and other research. Such private, personal matters always have exceptions. It can be difficult for those of us in the West to understand how sexual orientation can play a small role in a person’s sense of identity. However, we live in a culture that values the individual. Whereas in Japan and other Asian cultures identity is focused on the family and family history. The individual is just another part of a large tree; a part that is pressured to continue the lineage and not dishonor it.
The Problems of World View
It is difficult for those of us who are heterosexual to understand the social pressures transgender and homosexual people face. This becomes even more difficult when culture differences add further complications. Despite Westernization, Japan still remains a culture different from that of the United States and other Western societies. Applying our understanding to their viewpoints and unique cultural identity is a disservice, but at the same time we can only understand based on what we know. Basically, what I am trying to say is this: we must have care when thinking about Japanese homosexuality and not view it from our own cultural lens. There are similarities and differences between the challenges homosexual people face in Japan and other countries. It becomes even harder to understand and explain these challenges when you have a world view that isn’t discriminated against, such as mine as a white, heterosexual American male.
In any case, it is important to understand that yaoi and yuri do not represent Japanese homosexual relationships. On the same note, hentai doesn’t represent Japanese heterosexual relationships. You can go ahead and smack your forehead and shout duh! But the messages we consume help form that worldview I talked about. We must remember not to allow media to shape our views without our knowledge.
Associated Press. (2015). Tokyo Ward 1st in Japan to Recognize Same Sex Marriage. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/03/31/world/asia/ap-as-japan-same-sex-marriage.html?_r=0
Chalmers, S (2002). Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan. Psychology Press.
Furnham, A., & Saito, K. (2009). A Cross-Cultural Study of Attitudes Toward and Beliefs About, Male Homosexuality. Journal Of Homosexuality, 56(3), 299-318. doi:10.1080/00918360902728525
McLelland, M. (2000a). Is there a Japanese ‘gay identity’?. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 2(4), 459-472. doi:10.1080/13691050050174459
McLelland, M. (2000b) Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan. Intersections: Gender, History, and Culture in the Asian Context. 3. http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue3/mclelland2.html
Nakagawa, Ularam (2010). Japan’s Lesbians Still Scared to Come Out. CNN. http://travel.cnn.com/tokyo/life/lesbians-in-Japan-struggle-to-build-their-own-community-814836
Newswire (2015) Abe Lays Down Constitutional Barrier to Gay Marriage in Japan.