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three pairs of lovers with space



 好色一代男 Kōshoku ichidai otoko, was the most popular book of Ihara Saikaku, a prolific Japanese author of love stories involving both men and women and men and boys. Published in Ōsaka in 1682, it recounts the love life of a lustful plebeian libertine between the ages of six and fifty-three, including (according to a statement in the opening chapter omitted from the English translation) liaisons with 3,742 women, 725 boys, and other males whilst still a boy himself.  It was abridged and translated into English by Hamada Kengi as The Life of an Amorous Man, Vermont, 1964, from which the pederastic content has been extracted here.

The book ends in 1682, the time of writing, with Yonosuke, the protagonist, in his 54th year, gray-haired and becoming decrepit. From this it may be deduced that the first episode presented here is to be imagined as taking place in about 1642.

[Omitted passage]

[In a chapter missing from Hamada's abridged translation, "at the tender age of ten the fantastically precocious Yonosuke reverses the reigning protocol of erotic pursuit by seducing an adult male into becoming his nenja. In a chapter set two decades later, the narrator reveals that Yonosuke’s erstwhile lover is a samurai, and the two tearfully reunite as the closest of friends, well after Yonosuke’s attainment of adulthood has rendered the sexual side of their relationship obsolete.[1]]


"Strange Mate"

The spring of Yonosuke's fourteenth year was over, and on the first day of the fourth month—the day for a complete change of wardrobe signifying the end of childhood—he slipped on a robe with sleeves that had no wide openings under the armpits. Neighbors regretted the change, for they felt that his back view in a child's tight-sleeved robe had been particularly attractive.

One day, with a definite purpose in mind, he went on a a pilgrimage to the Hatsuse Shrine with a few of his play-mates. Climbing a hill called Kumo-no-Yadori, whose name meant Cloudland Lodging, the group plunged deep into the woods where masses of sweet-scented blossoms had already abdicated to sprouting green leaves—blossoms to which the poet Ki-no-Tsurayuki once dedicated a verse:

You say you waited faithfully for me.
     Alas, I do not know if it is true.
     But the plum blossoms in the meadow here,
     Unlike you in their faithfulness, give forth
     The same perfume as in the days of old.

As soon as Yonosuke reached the shrine, he stood respectfully before it and mumbled: “O Lord, I pray thee, Tell me with gracious intent, When will I be favored with the blessed event?”

Hearing this, one of his companions thought: "There he goes again, praying for his first love affair."

Returning by way of Sakurai, which was reminiscent of the glory of past blossoms, Yonosuke could see the Toichi and Furu shrines to the north. Toward sunset he and his party arrived at the foot of Mt. Kurahashi. It was harvest time for winter wheat, and from every peasant's house along the way came the sound of farm hands threshing grain with flails. Children were weaving straw baskets and cages. There was a long natural hedge extending from a rubbish heap, with sword beans dangling queerly from vines.

Behind the hedge Yonosuke saw a number of good-looking youths, just past childhood, who were either posing or modeling straw figures. Their hair was dressed in a rather odd way and they wore straw-woven hats with colorful twisted paper tassels—altogether a singular custom, Yonosuke thought, for a rural village. When he called their attention to it, one of the youths said in a pretentiously knowing manner: "This village is called Jin-o-do. It's a place where the tobiko —you know, those professional transient boys from Kyoto and Osaka—look for accommodations to ply their secret trade when they make the rounds of the rural districts."

Yonosuke thought: "This is indeed a windfall." He soon made cautious inquiries in the village and chose a small, not too conspicuous lodging house. The innkeeper guessed aright what Yonosuke was seeking and gave some of the names of those youths who were available for the night—queer names such as Somenosuke, Nami-no-Jo, Santaro. When these youths were summoned, Yonosuke found them to be queer-looking too. Each of his party made his choice, and soon the festive board was spread. Wine cups were exchanged, and a wild convivial party followed.

As the night wore on, someone shouted, as it were through astigmatic fumes, that the moon had become distorted, or that the flowers had curved beyond recognition. Meanwhile pairs of eyes looked knowingly at each other and preparations for bed were made.

As to bed things, however, Yonosuke found that the blankets at this inn were of coarse cross-striped cotton and the pillows of bastard cedar chopped into short blocks. Worse, rice bran was smouldering in an earthenware mortar—to drive away mosquitoes, it was said. But the smoke somehow reminded him of aloes-wood incense, arousing his sensual instincts.

Yonosuke moved closer to his chosen mate for the night. His mate began to caress him as an enticement to the sexual act, and his hands still bore scars of a recently-cured skin ailment. So caressed, however, he felt a queer sensation, not exactly glad, nor yet sad. But it was a loving gesture, developed and perfected through years of — experience. As Yonosuke concentrated on this thought, he felt much better, even passionate.

He asked his mate: "What provinces have you toured up to now in devotion to your trade?"

A female voyeur watches a man pedicating a wakashu, from a scroll by Miyagawa Choshun, early 18th century

"Now that you ask me about it, I might as well confess everything," the youth replied. "First of all, I was a Kabuki actor in Kyoto doing female impersonations, and I stayed with Itoyori Gonzaburo. From there I was sent in turn to live with Kihachi, the flute player, and a theatrical patron in Miyajima. After that I called at the palace of the Lord of Bitchu and the Kompira Shrine in Sanuki Province, without any fixed domicile. Then I moved on to the Anryu gay quarters in the town of Sumiyoshi, also to Kashihara in Kochi Province. Next I came here to dally with the priests of Imaidani and Tabu-no-Mine. Of all the men I met, the worst that remain in my memory were Gakunimbo of Yawata and Shirouemon of Mameyama. They were incomparable homosexuals. When we tobiko performed with these men, we were hugged and squeezed and pressed so roughly that it was as though we were crossing a storm-tossed sea. However, after that we experienced no difficulty at all in pursuing our profession, no matter who our mates were. One day I enticed a woodcutter in a forest. At another time, on the seashore, I stripped a fisherman naked. All this, you understand, to earn some spending money. Money, money, money—that's all. There is no longer any such thing as pride of profession, or the spirit of it. I don't remember where I had slipped. It is really regrettable."

Yonosuke thought: "Some lies are no doubt mixed up in his story, but I don't believe he made it all up."

"Then tell me," he said, "about the time you came across a mate you found detestable."

"In this profession," the youth replied, "we cannot refuse any man, no matter if his body is covered with sores or if he has never used a toothpick in his life. We must endure everything he does throughout the long autumn night. More than once I have felt mortified or chagrined and shed many a bitter tear. But time flies quickly, and in the fourth month next year I shall be a free man again. I am already looking forward to it and congratulating myself. Besides, according to the zodiac, we who were born under the sign of the kanesho will meet with a turn in our fortune the day after tomorrow, and this good luck will continue for seven years thereafter. So I shall have easy sailing, so to speak."

Kanesho in the zodiac signified twenty-four pieces of gold. "In that event," Yonosuke thought, "he is ten years older than I am. But wait. Why fuss about age differences when you are about to have a night of fun with this handsome youth?"

So he stopped speaking then and there, without asking any more questions about the youth's profession.


Road to Degradation

[Following Yonosuke leading a life of dissipation in Edo:]

One day a sharp letter arrived from his mother in Kyoto. His father had disowned him.

Stripped of ready cash and physically worn out, Yonosuke found himself literally left out in the cold, with nowhere to turn.

The keeper of the family's branch shop, being wise in his way and fearing for Yonosuke's health, asked an aged priest to take him in hand and initiate him into the ascetic life of monks. Yonosuke accepted his fate with tardy humility. He shaved his head on the seventh of the fourth month. He was nineteen now.



Proceeding far into the bamboo forests of the Musashi region west of Edo, Yonosuke built a reed hut in a lonely valley, with a footpath cut across honeysuckles and bindweeds. This was to be his hermitage, with no companions whatsoever save the Musashi moon on cloudless nights. Water was scarce hereabouts, so scarce indeed that he had to build a long conduit that brought precious trickles into his cupped hands from up the valley.

For a few days, cut off from the mundane world, Yonosuke read the sacred Buddhist sutras with commendable zeal. But alone with his prayers and meditations, he soon tired of his hermit's life. Doubts entered his mind. "No one has ever actually seen the promised hereafter," he argued with himself. "Nor has anyone ever actually grappled with the demons of flaming hell." And his past life of sin, from which the stern spirit of the Buddha seemed to have conspicuously kept away, now appeared in retrospect to be more desirable than ever.

So in a fit of impious disgust he sold the coral beads of his rosary, all of them. Silver coins jingled on his palm. And now again he thought of the life of the flesh.

While wondering how he should make a new start, he saw a lad of some sixteen years of age going past him in the lonely valley. The youth wore a brown crested robe with a satin sash tied behind his back, a pair of neat Takasaki socks, and leather-soled sandals. His hair was tied rather loosely in a knot, giving it a feminine appearance. Inserted in his sash was a medium-length sword. The little medicine case dangling beside it was very charming indeed. Altogether he seemed like an attractive youth. And trailing him was a business-like man holding a sewing box, a record book, and an abacus. They made a stylish, good-looking pair—the conventional type of attraction, however, that attracts without arousing the suspicion of the onlooker.

Recognizing their profession, Yonosuke felt oddly moved in this desolate region. Matter-of-factly he called them back: "I should like to buy some aloeswood."

After he had made his purchase, Yonosuke said: "Where do you live?"

"In Shiba, in front of the Shimmei Shrine, at Goro-kichi's flower shop called Tsuruya," the lad replied. "My master is called Juzaemon."

That conveyed nothing significant to Yonosuke. But later, upon making inquiries at the nearest village, he was to learn that there is nothing so awkward as being ignorant of open secrets.

A boy invites Yonosuke into a boy brothel. Illustration by Hishikawa Moronobu accompanying the original text

Itinerant perfume sellers, he was told, were masqueraders: womanish youths who called at rich widowers' estates or made the rounds of poor sections where country samurai lived. They might peddle other dainty goods besides perfume, but they were like gadflies and their trade was a screen to hide their true identities from the unknowing. They followed a set pattern of conduct and a line of talk easily recognizable to men acquainted with their secrets: men who felt no attractions in real women.

In his present desperate state of mind, it struck Yonosuke that here, as business master of such a group, was a convenient means of eking out a living. Whatever he thought of the business itself, it would at least bring in money. And he needed money in a hurry. Plenty of it.

His hermitage became an itinerant perfume sellers' hideout. There came Nagahachi and Mankichi and Kiyozo, three good-looking womanish lads. Yonosuke felt no qualms of conscience about exploiting them for money. His sacred robe was ripped up for dishrags. The kitchen became littered with leftovers and the bones of white geese. He was back again at his old sinful life, now complete with degradation.

Muddy River

"Never," a beautiful woman once wrote, "has the moon shone upon an exile who is without sin." Himself an exile now, Yonosuke pondered over that line and nodded forlornly in affirmation.

The night wind howled under the eaves of his hut, and the reeds quivered in the shadows. In the morning the peddlers of bean curd avoided this valley. Forced abstinence gave him a vague sense of loneliness. Men might think he was a true ascetic. But he knew that the devotionless fire of the incense of his life would soon be smothered by the ashes piling up. "I cannot be wasting my life here," he decided.

All he had needed was money. The lads would have to shift for themselves. He was through.

Late one afternoon, while there was still enough light for him to see his way, Yonosuke left his hermitage forever.



Lovelorn Man in a Tree

[Yonosuke was now in his 30s, having inherited the family fortune from his father, and married:]

"Truly there is fun in playing with young actors."

Yonosuke finally yielded to this importunate suasion and visited the Ryosan Temple in Higashiyama.

'The Feast'. An illustration accompanying the original text

But the Noh drama rehearsal was already over, and after everyone had left, there was not a sound save thesigh of the evening breeze among the pines and the sizzling of the wheat-gluten cake called fu being fried in deep oil in the temple kitchen. The frying of/z/ signified that a humble feast of abstinence, a vegetarian repast, was being prepared, which in turn called for abstaining from sake drinking.

"This is indeed going to be a test of humility," said Yonosuke. "What will we do now? I'm ready for anything."

His host gave an order to a servant: "Go and fetch Tamagawa, Ito, and four or five others from Miyagawa-machi. We'll have a different group this time."

Forthwith swift-traveling palanquins were requisitioned, and in no time at all, as it were, the good-looking youths arrived.

"Here they are! Who can resist them?" was the general exclamation.

Yonosuke's host put it this way: "Dallying with these youths is like seeing wolves asleep beneath scattering  cherry blossoms, whereas going to bed with prostitutes gives one the feeling of groping in the dark beneath the new moon without a lantern. Truly," he continued, "that is the difference between the two types of indulgence. Almost every man is bound to be bewildered in either situation."

Forgetting their age, the assembled men played all sorts of indoor games with the youths, as though they themselves were boys again, until they became soaked with perspiration. To enjoy the cooling breeze, they all moved to the porch with a southern exposure. It was a night in May, and the moon was hardly bright. A Zelkova tree stood in the shadows, and from the thick foliage of its lower branches came myriads of leaping lights, like some bright glittering objects. Taken aback by this vision, the men ran back helter-skelter into the temple kitchen and administrative office, as though they had lost their minds. One of them, however, a husky chap with great muscular powers, fetched a bow and arrow and was about to leap out into the garden when Sansaburo Takii, one of the handsome youths, seized him from behind.

"Stop it!" said Sansaburo. "There is nothing up there that you should shoot at."

But when Sansaburo walked to the foot of the tree and looked sharply upward toward the leaf-laden branches, he saw a black object moving darkly against a starry background.

"Who are you?" he demanded, "And what are you doing up there?"

A voice from the treetop answered: "Mortifying! This is indeed mortifying! If I had been shot to death by an arrow, I would never be suffering like this. But you, Sansaburo-sama—you, out of your goodness—stopped it, and my agony has increased twofold. I feel as though my bones were cracking—a living hell, I tell you." Hot tears flowed from the eyes of the man in the tree as he said this, and he now wiped them with his sleeve.

"Well then," Sansaburo asked, "are you in love with someone?"

"You're making it harder for me when you ask me that," said the man in the tree. "It is you I have watched every day at the Noh play. How many times, indeed, have I followed you secretly to the gate as you left the theater! Really, I felt like dying when I heard you speak. Today I heard the sandal bearer Kongo and others whispering that you were coming out to Higashiyama again, and I wanted desperately to see you. So I came here and climbed this tree with the intention of forsaking this world by hanging myself. Now that I have had the good fortune of speaking to you, I have nothing to regret. If you have any pity for me, please burn incense for me after I am gone." So saying, he threw down the loose crystals of his broken rosary.

Sansaburo said: "I, too, have felt right along an emotion for you. Now that you have confessed to me, I am very glad. The feeling, I assure you, is mutual. How can I deny your wishes? Wait for the dawn, and your wishes shall be fulfilled. Come to my house in the morning."

The other men at the temple, ignoring this passionate confession of two homosexual males, surrounded the tree and, despite Sansaburo's pleas, dragged the man down from the tree. To the amazement of all, they found him to be a priest living at this temple.

When Yonosuke learned the truth of their attachment, he said: "Splendid!" and himself made arrangements so the two lovers could embrace each other in privacy right away.

The rest of the story came to Yonosuke's ears long afterwards in Edo at a gathering of men devoted to love among homosexuals—a gathering at which confessions were freely made. On that occasion Sansaburo made a clean breast of his life with the priest. He even had the word Kei tattooed on his left arm as proof of his devotion to the priest, whose name was Keisu. This, therefore, is not fiction but a true story.


[1] David Gundry, “Samurai Lovers, ‘Samurai Beasts’: Warriors and Commoners in Ihara Saikaku’s Way of the Warrior Tales” in Japanese Studies Vol. 35 (2015), No. 2, 162, citing Ihara Saikaku, Kōshoku ichidai otoko, ed. Teruoka Yasutaka, in Shin Nihon koten bungaku zenshū, vol. 66 (Shōgakukan, 1996) 30–33 & 114-7.




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