Homosexuality in Japan: The Meiji Gap

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:00 am

The effects of Meiji reforms on women have been pretty well documented: the continued legality of prostitution, including indenture; the consolidation of male power within family law and politics; the rise of the “Good Wife; Wise Mother” cult of femininity, education; etc. There’s been relatively little research that I’m aware of which really takes the male experience of Meiji all that seriously, separate from the general “Japanese” experience. One of the areas in which that’s really obvious, even to my students, is sexuality.

How quickly can the closet door close? One of the as-yet unstudied oddities of Japanese history is the shift in male sexuality from the Tokugawa to Meiji eras. As an example of the state of the field, here’s a recently published translation of a Japanese article from about two years ago:

Although there are many literary and artistic representations dating from the Edo period (1603-1857) which describe sexual acts which took place between men using terms such as danshoku and wakashu, at that time participating in such acts did not designate a specific type of person and so these records cannot be read as part of the history of ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ men. The so-called ‘birth’ of the homosexual took place in Japan in the Meiji (1858-1912) and Taisho (1912-25) periods when participating in same-sex sexual acts came to be understood as the result of a personal disposition, but almost no first-person narratives survive from this time.

The only records which remain from this period are case studies and analyses from a genre of sexology publications dating from 1900 which treated ‘homosexuality’ as one example of ‘perverse sexuality.’ There are also some articles and reports about cross-dressing male prostitutes who existed before and after World War II, but these reports, are also ‘about’ homosexuals and do not represent their own voices. However, this period of silence in which there were no records created by homosexuals themselves began to change in 1950 with the appearance of magazines such as Amatoria which took sex as their theme.

The near-total silence of Meiji sources is quite remarkable. It’s not like all the samurai just disappeared, and there’s a great deal of continuity in social, family, consumptive and cultural practices between Tokugawa and Meiji. I’m quite sure that the influence of Western sexual taboos is very strong in this regard, but it’s somewhat surprising that the deliberately transgressive and sexual “I-novel” writings of the Meiji and Taisho eras, for example, contain no (as far as I know) considerations of homosexuality.

It’s possible, I suppose, that the “Tokugawa” traditions of male-male sexual practices are really “early-mid” Tokugawa practices, which had mostly died out by the 19th century, but that’s a question for someone who knows the literature better than I. It’s also possible that the silence in the sources is a temporary thing, a result of our research interests, but there are people actively studying sexuality in Japan and it strikes me as odd, but not at all dispositive, that so little has been found.


Murakami Rocks!

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:07 am

I didn’t even know it was out, but Murakami Haruki’s latest novel, in English translation, is on the New York Times’ Top Ten Books of 2005 List. My holiday recreational reading is now officially spoken for.


“The Apprentice”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:22 am

I recently learned [29 October 2005 show, round 3] that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, recently indicted for his role in, at the very least, the coverup of the Valerie Plame Wilson leak, is a published author. Why should I care, I hear you ask? Because his book, The Apprentice is about a dramatic encounter in 1903 Japan. (You can view the book at Amazon, as well as decidedly mixed reader reviews)

The Apprentice takes place in a remote mountain inn in northernmost Japan, where a raging blizzard has brought together wayfarers who share only fear and suspicion of one another. It is the winter of 1903, the country is beset with smallpox and war is brewing with Russia.

In the flickering shadows of the crowded room, the apprentice, charged with running the inn during the owner’s absence, finds himself strongly attracted to one of the performers lodged there. His involvement with the mysterious travelers plunges him headlong into murder, passion and heart-stopping chases through the snow.

Several of the news stories which mention the book say that it got “favorable reviews” but, on the erotic bits at least, the New Yorker (which was probably the source for the Wait, Wait questions) disagrees. I can’t find any reviews which seem to be written from a good Japanese historical or literary background. Libby worked for the State Department’s East Asia desk in the early-mid 1980s, which seems to be where he got his interest in Japanese history as a backdrop for his writing.

My university library system does not, alas, have a copy, but my state public library does. I’ve put in a request, so I might be able to answer my own questions shortly. But if anyone out there who knows the period has already read it, I’d be happy to hear from them first.


Theodore Roosevelt and the “Human Bullets”

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:01 am

Nick, one of the contributers here at Frog in a Well, is working on a project related to the Russo-Japanese War (I hope he will be blogging some of his more interesting finds here at some point). This evening the two of us have been clocking a few late hours at the library and he showed me an interesting work called 『戦争文学集』(An Anthology of War Literature) published in 1929. In the book there is an interesting letter to a Lieutenant Sakurai written by Theodore Roosevelt and dated April 22, 1908, which I reproduce below:

My dear Lieutenant Sakurai:
I wish to thank you for the two very beautiful copies of “Human Bullets,” one in Japanese and one in English, which I have just received through the courtesy of Count Okuma. I already have a copy, which I have read not only with interest but with high admiration. I shall keep this copy always in my library. I have already read portions of the book to my two elder sons, for I feel that the knowledge of the deeds of wonderful heroism so graphically told by you should be an inspiration to every young man who may ever have to serve his country in battle. I wish to thank you, and at the same time to express my profound admiration for the army and navy of Japan. With great regard, and renewed thanks, believe me,
Sincerely Yours,
Theodore Roosevelt


The Price of Historical Accuracy

Filed under: — tak @ 2:58 am

Recently I received an email from a novelist out on the West Coast who is working on a historical novel set in 1946 Japan. She wanted to know how much things cost at that time. Being an anthropologist and not a historian, I really had no idea where to look, other than to say that in 1946 prices must have been really unstable because of inflation, SCAP’s attempt to engineer the market while at the same time implement labor-friendly policies, and the proliferation of the black market. A great description of the social landscape at that time is in John Dower’s superb Embracing Defeat, especially the first section where he takes you right to the streets of postwar Tokyo so that you can smell the cheap kasutori liquor and see the pan-pan girls hanging onto U.S. servicemen. (Another book I have read that deals with this same time period is Chalmers Johnson’s gripping Conspiracy at Matsukawa).

But I asked around to see if there are easier ways of finding out other than combing through long passages, and sure enough our ever resourceful Jonathan Dresner recommended two reference books: Estimates of Long Term Economic Statistics of Japan since 1868 (bilingual) and the Historical Statistics of Japan.

He also had a brilliant suggestion of looking at microfilms of newspapers at that time and picking off prices of products through ads. I would never have thought of that!

(For those wishing to have questions answered, a more helpful place to ask might be over at H-Japan, a resourceful user group that focuses on Japanese history. They cast a much wider net of scholars there, so you might get more in-depth responses.)

I have to say, its nice to see fiction writers taking the time to do some historical research for their writing. When films like The Last Samurai mutilate history, it really is a travesty because a little veracity would have made the film truly powerful (my opinion). Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is also that much more convincing to the reader. So perhaps it’s worth paying the price of meticulous research to push for historical accuracy.

But then, I also think that if you’re writing a novel like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Pale View of Hills, then accuracy doesn’t really matter because it is all about how memories from one moment of your life become all confused with things that happened in other moments. (This is not to say that Ishiguro’s novel contained historical inaccuracies.)


Oe and Millenarian Movements

Filed under: — tak @ 7:56 am

I have spent the last few days working on a syllabus for a course titled “Anthropology of Social Movements,” and I figure I could use some help from our regular visitors of the Well.

One section of the class will be devoted to a reading of Oe Kenzaburo‘s The Silent Cry (Mannen gannen futtoboru). This book will be read in conjunction with E.P. Thompson‘s essay “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteen Century”(Past and Present 50:76-136).

Here’s where I need help. I am looking for one or two short pieces that might help fill out the historical background to the novel. Basically I am looking for a piece on Anpo and another on Tokugawa period peasant insurrections (ikki and uchikowashi). The pieces have to be in English, and I’d rather have them make sweeping unprovable claims about the historical significance of these events rather than have them stuffed with historical details.

If there is something out there that discusses Anpo and ikki in one broad stroke, that would be most ideal. But Anglophone scholars have only begun to explore that sort of post-Anpo New Left sensibility, perhaps most famously articulated by Yoshimoto Takaaki. Or maybe works do exist, and I’m sure they do in research on literature, so it would be great if someone could refer works here.

The entire course is designed as a long argument against analyses of social movements by economistic Marxism (or in the case of Japan, koza-ha Marxists) and modernization theory. The Silent Cry section will help students understand the “human consciousness” aspects of social movements and will come right after a section on millenarian movements around the world such as the cargo cults of Melanesia and the Ghost Dance movement of North America.

« Previous Page

Powered by WordPress