Early Modern Japan: A Queer Haven?
By: Crystal Zhao
In modern Western politics, gender identity and sexual orientation are consistently hot-button issues. From the highest court in the land, to the humble Thanksgiving dining table, fierce debates occur at every level of society. Though there are countries, like Argentina and Canada, where same-sex marriage is legal and the public is generally friendly toward the LBGTQ+ communities, they are certainly outliers. It is hard to imagine a reality where sexual identity isn´t so highly contested. Perhaps, though, it isn’t a matter of where to look for these havens, but when.
In early modern Japan, arts and culture flourished under the Tokugawa Shogunate. This time of prosperity, isolationism, and stability is better known as the Edo period. The artistic strides of the time led to a greater appreciation for beauty and lyricism, including sexual and bodily allure. This attitude was perhaps what enabled the rise of the wakashu. Wakashu were young men who inhabited a unique grey area of sexual fluidity in Japanese society. Between the onset of puberty and independent adulthood, males were considered to be at peak physical beauty. Desired and most nearly revered by the rest of society, these boys were admired not for stereotypically male traits like strength and taciturnity, but characteristics such as grace, elegance, and coyness. They were expected to train under the mentorship of an older professional, and it was acceptable and common for the two to engage in sexual activity. This would go on until the younger came of age, which was a flexible and ill-defined limit in and of itself. Afterwards, the newly minted man could take on his own younger male lover or female companion. His formerly sexual relationship would then be expected to transform into a lasting friendship bond.
Of course, Edo Japan wasn’t some sort of free love utopia. Unsurprisingly, this sort of gender bending was only widely accepted one way – females taking on traditionally male characteristics weren’t nearly as welcome in society, as evidenced by all-male Kabuki theatre and a lack of lesbian representation in visual arts. And even tolerance for gender non-conforming males faded with the Western intrusions that began in the mid-nineteenth century. Following Commodore Perry’s fleet of intimidating, technologically advanced ships in Tokyo Harbor came a period of national insecurity where Japan was pushed to adopt Western culture, including greater rigidity in gender and sexual expression. Again and again throughout history, European and later, American invaders were always so arrogantly certain that native populations’ views on environmental protection, religion, medicine, and every other topic couldn’t possibly be correct. Conquering cultures were wrong many times, desperately bringing the same native ideas back decades and centuries later when their unsustainable practices came to a head. It’s merely the same old story with the wakashu of Edo Japan.