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three pairs of lovers with space



Of all the countries where Greek love flourished, for over a thousand years Japan was probably the one most similar to ancient Greece herself, in that it was widely practised in a highly romantic and idealised form, between boys and men (monks and later samurai) devoted to bringing out the best in their boys.  At the same time, open boy prostitution was also widespread, perhaps more so than anywhere. In between these extremes, idealistic or commercial, it also of course arose as a commonplace consequence of the ordinary man and boy's search for physical love. Examples follow of all these.

The commonest early form of Greek love in Japan was that practised by Buddhist monks and their chigo or boy acolytes. Forthright acceptance of sex between them was a special Japanese exception to the usual Buddhist insistence on full celibacy: its legitimacy was bolstered by a tradition which ascribed its introduction into Japan to Kūkai, known posthumously as Kōbō-Daishi (The Grand Master Who Propagated the Buddhist Teaching), founder of the esoteric Shingon (True Word) school of Buddhism, following his return from study in China in AD 806. Kōbō-Daishi's Book, written in 1598, purports to give the great teacher's insights and rather graphic recommendations for detecting promising chigo, then seducing and pedicating them. The early 14th-century story Kannon's Manifestation as a Youth, in which divine intervention helped a monk in his longing for a boy, illustrates the indulgence view taken towards sex with boys. The role of pedication as the highest ritual in cementing the spiritual bond between monk and chigo is made most explicit in the 14th-century illustrated mauscript, the  Chigo no sōshi. The monk Kenkō's classic compendium of anecdotes and opinions, Essays in Idleness, written in 1330-32, also has two stories about monks and chigos.

For several centuries, pederasty seems only to have been widespread and sometimes idealised in this monastic form. The few references there are to the nobility partaking in it suggest that it was fully accepted, but uncommon.  For example, the 11th-century masterpiece of Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji, has only one reference to it, though it is massive in length and is mostly about the hero's romantic adventures. On one occasion, frustrated in his hopes of seducing a young noblewoman, he takes her younger brother of 12 or 13 to bed instead, and found him "more attractive than his chilly sister."

Early modern European visitors to Japan were unsurprisingly shocked by the very different Japanese mores regarding pederasty, especially the 16th-century Christian missionaries, of whom Luís Fróis wrote briefly about the "abominations" of the Buddhist monks with boys in his Striking Contrasts in the Customs of Europe and Japan (1585).

The greatest single source of our knowledge of wakashudō, the Japanese "way of loving boys", is the stories of Ihara Saikaku, in which it is a pervasive theme, and especially his The Great Mirror of Male Love (1687), a compilation of forty short stories, of which four love stories between boys and samurai are reproduced here: Within the Fence: Pine, Maple and a Willow Waist, Love Letter Sent in a Sea BassThough Bearing an Umbrella, He Was Rained Upon and Tortured to Death with Snow on His Sleeve. The second at least of these is based on a true story.  Together, they demonstrate the most remarkable features of wakashudō, the qualities that show it have been more harmonious in practise than Greek pederasty.  While both forms of boy-love stressed its greater compatibility with superior, masculine values, the Greeks seem to have felt unhappily that boys' masculinity was compromised by their enjoying the passive sexual role, as discussed in the essay Did the Greeks pedicate their loved boys? Hence Greek boys were ideally imagined as never enjoying sex with their lovers to whom they gave in to delicately-depicted love-making only after the latter had proven the non-sexual benefits of the hoped-for relationships through protracted courtship. In contrast, Japanese boys could and often did initiate their love affairs, evidently with full social approval, showing spontaneity and passion even while everyone assumed as a matter of course that this meant their being pedicated by their lovers.

Japan in the early 17th century

Whilst monks and chigos continued to have liaisons in Saikaku's time and he occasionally mentioned these, most of the boys in Saikaku's wakashudō stories fell into one of three categories. The most idealised liaisons were between samurai and boys of their class. These involved courtship, love and often the formal exchange of vows making them similar to temporary marriages. With their role in preparing boys to become samurai themselves, with all the skills and ideals that entailed, and their emphasis on mutual honour , these were much the closest equivalent to ancient Greek pederasty that has been seen.

At the same time, many boys of the same class were taken into service as pages by the daimyos, the lords of the Japanese provinces.[1] Such a boy was expected to serve his daimyo in bed if wanted, and many daimyos did so want, collecting particularly beautiful boys for their service. Even if not taken up, he was still expected to reserve himself sexually for his daimyo: for any page to take a samurai as his lover was regarded as an act of infidelity punishable by death. In return for his service, the page serving a daimyo could expect to receive education and general preparation for a good life as a man of his class, in much the same way as did pages in mediaeval and early modern Europe (the main difference obviously being social and legal support or extreme hostility to the opportunities for Greek love offered by such relationships, the question of how many European lords and pages dared avail themselves like their Japanese peers being unanswerable). The tone in which the stories of daimyos and boys are recounted suggests that the boys regarded becoming a daimyo's favourite as an honour and an opportunity, rather than as any kind of burden, the exceptions being when the boy was in love with another man.

The third kind of wakashudō common in Saikaku's time involved boy actors in popular kabuki plays, who played the roles of females as well as boys, and were generally expected to supplement their incomes by entertaining patrons in bed after their shows. This was the form of wakashudō that could be experienced by the dwellers of the three great cities of Kyoto, Edo and Osaka, and became indeed highly fashionable amongst them. It had its own rules of etiquette and was sometimes also romantic.

Saikaku's book The Life of an Amorous Man (1682), was the fictional biographer of a libertine who had liaisons with boys as well as women, and shows how, as in other societies where pederasty was ubiquitous, it was seen as entirely unremarkable for a man to want sex with both women and boys.

         A man pedicating a boy, by Suzuki Harunobu ca. 1750

Saikaku's Tales of Samurai Honour (1688), twenty-six tales he had heard illustrating the samurai code of honour, also included three in which Greek love was the main theme, the last of which was A Boy's Beauty Flowers When His Forelock Is Unshaven.

In The age of the loved boy in traditional Japan detailed analysis by five leading scholars from the primary sources is given on this question essential to understanding the character of Greek love in general.

Though the history of wakashudō stretches back centuries before the Edo period of Japanese history, 1603 to 1868, the latter was both its heyday and its finale. Together with the samurai and much of traditional Japanese culture, wakashudō, especially in its idealistic form, rapidly fell victim to the radical modernisation on European lines that followed the Meiji restoration in 1868. The new regime introduced a law in 1873 condemning those who practised keikan (sodomy) to ninety days in prison. Though this law was abolished in 1880, the new penal code then introduced and heavily influenced by the French one, defined seduction of anyone under 16 as "indecent assault" punishable by one or two months hard labour. This assault on a widespread practice was initially ineffective. According to the  English-language Japan Daily Mail of 2 September 1896:

Among certain students in Ushigome and Yotsuya, two areas of Tokyo, activities whose victims are young boys rather than young girls, are now in fashion. We would not wish to draw attention to conduct so abominable, but as it is happening, it would be useless to close one's eyes to it."

The Eastern World of 19 February 1898 went further, saying "Male homosexuality ... is so widespread among the students of Tokyo that adolescent boys cannot go out at night."

However, continued official disapproval and censorship, together with the social and economic changes that had pathologised homosexuality in Europe since the 18th century, finally brought about the rapid decline of homosexuality during the  first three decades of the 20th century and the demise of wakashudō as an understood practice. As Taruho Inagaki noted in his The Aesthetics of Boy-love (1968):

Without our noticing it, this cultural tradition has been lost to us. It is certainly long enough since the young boys' furi-sode was replaced by the tsutsu-sode [a kimono without long sleeves]. When we were schoolboys, we often heard of an affair in which two students had quarrelled on account of a beautiful young boy and had ended by drawing knives. It still happened occasionally that a boy would stab with his dagger someone who had attempted to take him by force. But since the new era of Taishō (1912-26), we no longer hear of this kind of thing. The shudō, which had clung onto life, has now reached its end.

Nevertheless, though entirely lost as a cultural institution and disapproved of, for most of the 20th century, pederasty was at least tolerated. The new penal code of 1907 reduced the age of consent of 13.

Michael Davidson and Keibo Suzuki is an English journalist's account of the greatest love affair of his life, with a fifteen-year-old boy in Tokyo in 1950-1. This suggests considerable social tolerance survived eighty years after the Meiji reforms, at least compared with the dire situation in the foreign countries that had inspired them.

An account of boy prostitution in Japan is taken from Boys for Sale by Drew and Drake (1969). It is not clear quite how up-to-date this report was, but it suggests the demise of wakashudō as an ideal had for a long time little impact on the supply and demand for boys for commercial sex that had always co-existed with it.

Boy-love in Japan, 1965-90 includes two articles from 1990, one summing up how things by then stood for Greek love, and the other reminiscences of a student's visual delight in boys in a Tokyo bathhouse in the later 1960s.

Even Japan, however, slowly succumbed to the new global repression which the anglosphere bullied the rest of the world to adopt. The national age of consent of 13 was rendered meaningless in most municipalities towards the end of the century by much higher ages of consent imposed at a local level, and was eventually raised to 16 in 2023.


[1] Several of Saikaku’s stories make it clear that the boys came from the samurai class and that no degree of beauty could qualify a boy for such service if he was of humble background. For example, in the story “Loved by a Man in a Box” in The Great Mirror, Saikaku says of one boy actor: “If he had been born with the proper background he would surely have become the favored possession of some great daimyo”.




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