It seems in history what I shall henceforth refer to as ‘the Spartan system’ was in place in several cultures all over the world. We have seen African societies in which homosexual relations were encouraged between boys and men in military style settings or as part of their rites of passage. Women developed similar relations during their own rites of passage or simply as co-wives of some rich man in African harems. Regarding African co-wives, I am not sure exactly where I read this but I remember reading that it was possible for wives to marry each other in intricate ceremonies. In these ceremonies, if a woman saw another woman she liked, she would go to that woman’s father with the bride price. Imagine! The same could happen with men with men paying ‘bride prices’ for other men and such. Thus, in some situations there could be parental consent just like with heterosexual couples. Sadly I have misplaced the notes I had written on homosexuality in Africa though I still remember one particular book. No need to be sad however as though I lost one, I have found that notebook!
So, let’s start from the beginning shall we? I was very surprised to learn of the Spartan system firmly in place among the samurai. I do not watch a lot of samurai movies as I am not among those who have a morbid obsession and love for all things samurai and the truth is I would have never been interested in the samurai if I had not learnt about wakashudo, a.k.a shudo which in English means ‘the way of the youth.’ After discovering more about this aspect of the samurai, my only advice to people is not to believe any depiction of the past you see in today’s media as they are very flawed (I will say 70% flawed, mostly lies or misinterpretations). Most people today tend to ignore this part of the samurai, I mean try telling some samurai fans that it was perfectly normal even expected for samurai to take men as lovers and watch them call you a liar.
Or even better, tell them that the samurai rouged their cheeks sometimes every morning but also before battle. They will probably not believe because this runs counter to modern ideas on masculinity and to some people the rouging of cheeks is not ‘masculine’ behaviour at all. Why on earth would the bold ‘manly’ samurai who cut through humans and countries with their swords bother to rouge their cheeks? The answer is similar to that of why the Spartan men grew their hair long and took care to oil their precious locks before the Battle of Thermopylae. Well, it is time to expose the samurai. Yes after reading this, you will never be able to look at samurai the same way. In fact your interest in samurai should increase exponentially as this is more interesting than katanas and bushido. Or perhaps I am the only person who will only care about bushido because of wakashudo.
When Saint Francis Xavier landed in Japan, he was horrified to discover the how widespread the ‘sin of Sodom’ was and how ‘nobody, neither man nor woman, young nor old, [regarded] this sin as abnormal and abominable’. This sin that was just oh-so unspeakable was practiced by the bonzes (an old term for Buddhist monks even spellcheck does not recognise the word) who used to lodge young sons from the samurai class in their monasteries. Now in those days it was believe that a certain Buddhist monk called Kukai a.k.a Kobo Daishi was the inventor of this ‘sin of Sodom’. He went to study in China and when he came back brought the ‘sin’ with him (this is the heavily summarized version).
Homosexuality was largely practised in the monasteries in the form of pederastic relations. The object of affection was called chigo which means a young boy (ages 10/11 to 18) and this chigo was the object of sexual love, worship and spiritual admiration as they were thought of as ‘gods incarnate’. It was okay for the monks to engage in these relationships though they took a vow of chastity. The love of the chigo was a means for them to stay faithful to their religion as the wishes or desires of the flesh were seen as pure and holy even though they had taken a vow of chastity.
From the chigo of the monks came the wakashu of the samurai. The wakashu was a young man (ages 13/14 to 20+) and the samurai military homosexuality similar to that found in some parts of ancient Africa and Greece was called wakashudo, or shudo for short. I guess I am more interested in the wakashu as they were significantly older than the chigo. Furthermore, the wakashu were also more elaborate in their style; they usually had their hair styled in a particular way sometime with mae gami (kind of like bangs, means literally ‘front hair’) and with long sleeved kimono, furi sode which was also worn by unmarried women to indicate they were of marriageable age. (The way to differentiate a man from a woman in the old pictures is usually the sword as can be seen in the image on the right. Long sleeves and a sword= a young lord, a wakashu) There was also a manner in which wakashudo was to be practiced with even poets writing books and manuals on the ethics of such relations. The wakashu was to have a pure and simple heart, be both tender and noble and must love study especially the composition of poetry. The wakashu were implored to have only one lover for life as samurai and were told to be considerate and see into the hearts of their nenja (older lovers). Apparently there is an intimate link between shudo and bushido and in those days, koi (love) referred to the love for a man and not for a woman.
‘Homosexual pleasure must never be pursued at the same time as pleasure with women. Moreover, what is really important is to practise the martial arts. It is only in this way that the shudo becomes bushido– Yamamoto Jocho (1649-1719) [emphasis mine]
Regarding samurai, cosmetics and makeup, the samurai of the Sengoku era (the period of warring states in Japan) used to perfume their hair with incense and ‘brushed’ their nails every morning. They also put light makeup (rouge and powder) before going to battle. The reasoning behind this beautification is actually simple and is heavily based on aesthetics. If a samurai is to prepare for death every morning and evening; and a samurai should also live his life beautifully and nobly and in death must also be beautiful and noble then it only makes sense for the samurai to beautify himself. By putting on makeup everyday when a samurai died, the samurai could be reassured that he died with not only impeccable character but also with a beautiful face. This is also apparently part of bushido. The samurai loved the wakashu as himself, the wakashu resembled the samurai in his youth and this was essentially a cycle of beauty.
Shudo had its own set of rules; when a man was young and a wakashu, he had an older nenja. When he was older, he became a nenja himself and took a wakashu. Finally when he was much older, he married a woman and had children. So the first half of a samurai’s life was spent loving men while the latter half was spent loving women. This was because in societies historically only certain people were exempt from marriage. In Japan, it was the Buddhist monks. Everyone else was supposed to get married. Similarly in African societies while boys in their youth could practice homosexuality, they were still expected to marry when they got older. Hence, it can be argued that this was really bisexuality wasn’t it?
Shudo came to an end during the Meiji Restoration, the Meiji Era was the period of modernization and Westernization for Japan and lasted from 1868 to 1912. Though shudo had begun its natural decline by the 18th century being replaced by sensualist homosexuality, Protestant ministers and intellectuals influenced by Christianity were at the head of the movement to exterminate homosexuality in an attempt to become modern and Western. The motto among young poets of the beginning of the 20th century became; ‘let us love young girls the Europeans so greatly esteem the love of women’ and homosexuality among the samurai and the Buddhist monks came to be viewed as a sign of the decadence of Japanese Buddhism.
So I have basically gone through the growth and decline of socially accepted homosexuality in Japanese history. As this post is long the way it is, I will have to share the theory of modernization and its affects on historical society in which homosexuality was generally accepted and even encouraged in another post. Take 3 coming up as soon as I am able to drag myself away from the RPGs and movies! I find myself seriously entangled in a Chinese wuxia drama.