Edo Period with Shinto Faith Vs Meiji Period With Christianity

Despite recent efforts made toward greater LGBTQ rights, Japan is far behind the standards of other industrial democracies. The country still denies gay marriage rights and has a lingering sense of shame linked to the concept of homosexuality. Such attitudes toward same-sex relationships make it difficult to believe that during the Edo period (1603-1868), they were widely accepted and even encouraged as a part of indigenous Japanese culture. What developments or occurrences could have changed Japanese perspectives of homosexual relationships? Although some argue that Christian intolerance of homosexuality in Japan was the sole cause the led to its decline, Japanese endeavors of modernization that aimed to make the nation more “civilized” according to Western standards during the 19th century Meiji Restoration was actually more influential in shaping their unaccepting modern-day attitudes towards same-sex relationships. The application of the West’s biological distinction of genders to determine gender roles, Western standards of male appearance that led to gender intensification, and the influence of Western transported industrialization and its bourgeoisie mindset, together shaped negative connotations of homosexual relationships in Japan. By understanding these historical sequences of events, one can understand the reason behind Japan’s prolonged unacceptance of homosexuality which had become embedded in their culture over time.

Clarifications need to be made on some of the key terms used in this essay. For one, the use of ‘modernization’ in this essay more closely resembles the meaning of ‘westernization.’ The Meiji era began with the restoration of the emperor and the resumption of their imperial dynasty, shortly after opening up their country from a period of isolation to American Commodore C. Perry. The new emperor, with his reactionary followers who participated in the overthrowing of the previous Tokugawa shogunate, began a rapid measure of westernization to gradually build a nation that would be capable of fending itself against Western power and exploitation, as well as one that could compete in the imperialist game. Therefore, the Japanese concept of modernizing and progress was directly related to becoming more Western. The second term that needs to be clarified is the meaning of ‘homosexuality’ in the Japanese context, as well as in this essay. Same-sex relations were largely predominate between (male) samurai during the Edo period, while few references discuss the existence of female relationships. Thus, when referring to ‘homosexuality,’ this essay focuses on the romantic and sexual same-sex relationships between men.

In the Edo period, the wide acceptance of homosexual relationships largely came from samurai shudo and Japan’s indigenous Shinto faith. Shudo was ‘the way’ of the samurai, created on the foundations of giri (obligation), the soul, and compassion. An essential part of shudo was the homosexual relationship between the wakashu, or the adolescent, and the nenja, the older counterpart. Between the samurai, it was a tradition for the wakashu to offer “nasake and the giri,” which could be interpreted as the young counterpart offering their heart and soul to their nenja and making it their obligation to devote themselves to their older partner, who would return the favor with education. These relationships were described in Yamamoto Jocho’s book called Hakakure from the 18th century where the author also encouraged these couples to stay together permanently, instead of treating it as temporary relationships, as long as they were committed to each other. In the Shinto faith, as well as some of the other indigenous Japanese faiths, nanshoku, or according to Gary Leupp, “a man’s male-oriented eros,” was considered a normal occurrence in Japan. These positive attitudes towards homosexuality that the Samurai and Shinto faith, which was major elements of Japanese culture, emphasized during the Edo period had at the time created a society very accepting of same-sex relationships.

Although Japan was once a society very accepting of homosexuality, where men were even encouraged into finding themselves a gay partner, the situation completely changed with the start of the Meiji period in 1868, where at one point, the government sentenced people to imprisonment if caught in a homosexual relationship. The Meiji period was notorious in reshaping the Edo period’s positive attitudes toward same-sex love, rendering homosexuality as a problem in society. Such attitudes still linger in modern-day Japan, where marriage is still only accepted between two people of opposite sexes, and many keep their sexual preferences closeted in fear of negative judgment. This essay will explore how such dramatic changes had occurred.

In The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality, Tsuneo Watanabe and Jun’ichi Iwata stated that some historians have argued that these changes in Japanese attitudes towards homosexuality were a direct response to the rising influence of Christianity in Japan and the religion’s intolerance of such relationships. After Japan’s period of isolation ended in the latter half of the 19th century, Christian missionaries entered the country for the second time, this time with more influential power due to Meiji Japan’s thirst for Western ideas. Alongside preaching their religion, missionaries opened Western schools for primary education, gradually earning their respect and acceptance from the Japanese. Thus, Protestant ministers and Christian intellectuals earned the power to exert more influence in leading movements to end homosexuality in Japan to the extent of persuading the government to create legal restrictions that prohibited homosexual relationships and acts. Christianity also suppressed other religions in Japan such as Shinto and Buddhism, who were great supporters of homosexuality. With the Christian appearance in Japan and their attack against homosexuality at the start of the Meiji era, the shudo ways of the Edo period became a thing of the past.

To some extent, Christianity no doubt had an influence on the decline of homosexuality in Japan. However, Christianity’s effect, in reality, was short-lived and generally weak in the Meiji period, and the religion declined before it was able to noticeably impact Japan’s homosexual culture. To the Japanese, Christianity, for the most part, was only something that came alongside the Western ideas that they wanted for modernization. As Hiroshi Suzuki described in “Why are Japanese Christians so few?” even though Christian missionaries worked hard to promote their religion upon entering the country, it simply proved to be unappealing and unfit for the Japanese. For one, it clashed with the Emperor’s plan to bring back the Shinto faith, which had crowned emperors as the descendants of the gods, as a method to obtain stronger respect and support from his citizens for nationalism. However, even the return of the Shinto faith did not bring back the flourishing homosexual culture of the Edo period, showing that factors other than religion must have been the main cause of its decline. Secondly, as Japan rapidly industrialized in this era, Christian missionaries found difficulty in encouraging people to continue incorporating the timely worship of God into their busy schedules. With such little influence and followers, Christianity could not have impacted homosexuality in Japan to the extent of leading it to its decline. Furthermore, even the prohibitions of homosexual acts that were prompted by Christian leaders, in their first and greatest exertion of power, became “relaxed” and disregarded within only ten years.

First off, the application of the Western method of differentiating genders on the distribution of roles in Japanese society during the Meiji period was one factor that led people to see homosexuality in a negative light. In the Edo period, several modes of defining genders existed, with the most commonly used distinction being the “women, youths, and men,” which portrayed quite an extent of flexibility in gender identification. This system provided people, especially the youths, opportunities to experiment and discover their identities and sexual preferences. However, with the Meiji restoration, gender became distinguished along with Western standards of biological sex, or genital distinction, and these identifications were used to determine one’s gender roles. As Gregory Pflugfelder stated, the idea of “regarding anatomy as civic destiny,” led to rigid differentiation of the sexes in terms of their given rights, education, military duties, career opportunities, and expectations. In this newly transformed society, individuals were under the pressure of fulfilling their rigid gender roles and following societal norms accordingly, such as heterosexual marriages and sexual intercourse for the purpose of reproduction. Homosexual relationships were no longer normal concepts in Japanese society in the Meiji period.

The idealization of Western standards of male beauty led to an intensification of genders, which further stressed the necessity for individuals to play their ‘proper’ role in society, strengthening the correlation of homosexuality to abnormality and shame. Traditionally, wearing makeup and beautiful feminine clothing to become charming and androgynous were considered to be privileges of the upper-class samurai. However, pressures to conform to Western standards in the Meiji period led to the idealization of Western male beauty standards, replacing the mae-gami hairstyle to common Western male hairstyles, and the colorful furisode with Western tsutsu-sodes. With this, male beauty declined and the use of makeup and dressing up was passed on to females. The new link between beauty and females, paired with the Tokyo Misdemeanor Code of 1873, which prohibited cross-dressing, created a paranoia of androgyne. This expectation for people to look their part further emphasized the roles that each gender had to play and portray, condemning personal inclinations such as homosexuality.

Lastly, Michel Foucault’s “repression hypothesis” explains how Western industrialization, which was another part of Japan’s vigorous modernization project mixed with idealizations of “Victorian puritanism,” created discourse and negative sentiments around homosexual activities in Japanese society. The 18th-century bourgeoisie, in the West and later in Japan, saw that sexual intercourse was only acceptable if it was for the purpose of reproduction which would boost the nation’s population, and in turn, the industrial labor force. Essentially, intercourse should only be a functional activity for the purpose of reproduction which would benefit the nation’s future with more laborers. The Meiji period’s progress towards “Victorian puritanism” that Foucault mentioned, on the other hand, refers to Japanese efforts to reach a high class of “civilization” in Western standards. In the first five years of the new era, the government outlawed anal intercourse and male prostitution, shaming any form of unreproductive sexual activities. The taboo against unreproductive sexual activities created by the industrial bourgeoisie class, as well as the Meiji government’s idealization of “Victorian puritanism,” led to the perversion of homosexuality and added to it an acute sense of shame.

The Meiji period saw a dramatic change in attitudes towards homosexuality in Japanese society. Compared to the acceptance of homosexuality as normal human behavior in the Edo period, its negative connotation of the Meiji period was a complete contrast. Although some may argue that the Christian intolerance of homosexuality was most influential in changing such attitudes, 19th-century Japanese modernization efforts that sought to conform to Western standards of ‘civilization’ during the Meiji Period have proved to be more influential in shaping these negative attitudes. The Western methods of differentiating genders on genital distinction and the distribution of gender roles accordingly created a sense of responsibility to fulfill their ‘proper’ roles in society, such as heterosexual marriage and reproduction. In addition, the adoption of Western male standards of beauty and the elimination of androgyny led to the intensification of gender distinctions and again, exerting pressure to conform to their gender norms. Lastly, the newly formed industrial class’ scorn against unreproductive sexual activities, paired with the idealization of “Victorian puritanism,” led to the strong correlation of homosexuality to shame. Together, these factors shaped the negative connotations of homosexuality that still lingers in modern-day Japanese society. It is crucial to understand that these historical events had strongly embedded negative attitudes toward homosexuality in Japanese culture and are still a difficult concept to accept for some people. However, Japan has visibly made progress in increasing LGBTQ rights over the past years, and is slowly but surely, making efforts to shake off the lingering sense of shame linked to same-sex relationships.

Works Cited

  1. Botsman, Dani. “Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600- 1950.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 61, no. 2, 2001, www.jstor.org/stable/3558573.
  2. Dower, John W. “Chapter Two: Civilization & Enlightenment.” Throwing off Asia I, 2008. https://visualizingcultures.mit.edu/throwing_off_asia_01/pdf/toa1_essay.pdf
  3. Leupp, Gary P. “Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan.” Berkeley: University of California Press, c1995 1995. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft8q2nb65q/.
  4. Pflugfelder, Gregory M. “The Nation-State, the Age/Gender System, and the Reconstitution of Erotic Desire in Nineteenth-Century Japan.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 71, no. 4, 2012, www.jstor.org/stable/23357429.
  5. Suzuki, Hiroshi. “Why are Japanese Christians so few?” International Christian University, 2002. https://icu-hsuzuki.github.io/science/gospel/ifi200206.pdf.
  6. Watanabe, Tsuneo, and Jun’ichi Iwata. The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality. London: GMP Publishers, 1989.
  7. Williams, Walter L. “From Samurai to Capitalist: Male Love, Men’s Roles, and the Rise of
  8. Homophobia in Japan.” The Journal of Men’s Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 1992,
07 July 2022
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