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gay sexoshiro Mifune, the popular actor famed for his characterizations of quick-witted, taciturn samurai, never uttered a word about it. Akira Kurosawa, the well-known movie director, kept inscrutably mum. Not one of the many hundreds of samurai movies made in the past century even as much as hinted at it nanshoku, the “love of the samurai”*. From its pivotal position in the education, code of honor, and erotic life of the samurai class, the love of youths has sunk below the level of the untouchable to the level of the unmentionable, truly “the love that dare not speak its name”. But the indelible fact remains that one of the fundamental aspects of samurai life was the emotional and sexual bond cultivated between an older warrior and a younger apprentice, a love for which the Japanese have many names, as many perhaps as the Eskimo have for snow.

The samurai often called it bi-do, “the beautiful way”, and guarded the tradition jealously. Ijiri Chusuke, in 1482 argued:

    “In our empire of Japan this way flourished from the time of the great master Kobo. In the abbeys of Kyoto and Kamakura, and in the world of the nobles and the warriors, lovers would swear perfect and eternal love relying on no more than their mutual good will. Whether their partners were noble or common, rich or poor, was absolutely of no importance… In all these case they were greatly moved by the spirit of this way. This way must be truly respected, and it must never be permitted to disappear.”(1)

Known also as wakashudo, “the way of the youth”, it was a practice engaged in by all members of the samurai class, from lowliest warrior to highest lord. Indeed it has been said that it would never have been asked of a daimyo, “lord”, why he took boys as lovers, but why he didn’t. This last is not a question that would have troubled, for example, the three great shoguns who unified Japan, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, or Tokugawa Ieyasu, nor for that matter Miyamoto Musashi, the author of “The Book of Five Rings.”(2)

In its key aspects, wakashudo (often abbreviated to shudo and synonymous with nanshoku, the current term for male love, written with the glyphs for ‘male’ and ‘color’) was an eerily accurate analog of the institution of pederasty which flourished two thousand years earlier in classical Greece. Like pederasty it was a relationship between an adult man and an adolescent male. Like it, it ended or transformed into platonic friendship as the youth came of age. Like pederasty, it was a pedagogic relationship fired by the energy of mutual erotic attraction. And in like fashion, it was not exclusive of the love of women. Samurai married, though usually later in life, just as the Greek warriors did. gay sex

The Japanese as well as the Greeks equated the love between a man and a beardless youth with all that was best in human nature, seeing it at times as the path to such ideals, and at other times as the goal itself. Simonides, in a famous drinking song from the fifth century BCE declares:

    “Hear the four best things a man can ask of life:
    Health unmarred lifelong, beauty of form and act,
    Honest gain of wealth, and while one is still a boy,
    To come to brightest bloom among heroic lovers.”

Those words were to be echoed two thousand years later, on a more Confucian if less exuberant note, by an anonymous writer in 1653, the author of Inu Tsurezure, “A Dog’s Idle Hours”:

    “It is natural for a samurai to make every effort to excel with pen and sword. Beyond that, what is important to us is not ever to forget, even to our last moment, the spirit of shudo. If we should forget it, it will not be possible for us to maintain the decencies, nor gentleness of speech, nor the refinements of polite behavior.”(4)

In some important aspects the traditions diverged: in Japan the youngster was expected to make the first advance, while the Greeks held that it was proper only for the man to court the youth. Hagakure, “Hidden by Leaves”, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s famous samurai manual from the early eighteenth century admonishes:

    “A young man should test an older man for at least five years, and if he is assured of that person’s intentions, then he too should request the relationship… If the younger man can devote himself and get into the situation for five or six years then it will not be unsuitable.”(5)

It would appear that this process would have had to start at an early age indeed, since such relationships formally ended at the time of the coming-of-age ceremony, usually around the age of eighteen or nineteen. At that time the youth would receive the tonsure (a cutting of the forelocks to simulate a receding hairline, a symbolic grasp for status in a society in which people to this day compare birth dates in an effort to establish pecking order) and become available in turn for taking the role of the adult in other shudo relationships. As in ancient times however, the partners would usually remain close friends even after the end of the pedagogic/erotic phase, and some of these relationships did not dissolve with the passing of time, becoming instead life-long love affairs.

Paradoxically, wakashudo was both integral to the tradition of unqualified devotion that a retainer had to have towards his lord, and at odds with it. Yamamoto Tsunetomo had this to say about the quandary:

    “To lay down one’s life for another is the basic principle of nanshoku. If it is not so it becomes a matter of shame. However, then you have nothing left to lay down for your master. It is therefore understood to be both something pleasant and unpleasant.”(6)

Samurai shudo had its early beginnings in the Kamakura period in the 1200’s, reached its apogee at the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603 and subsequently declined as the country was unified and the importance of the warrior class diminished. The history of male love in Japan however both predates and outlasts the samurai period. Though its prehistoric origins are invisible to us, written records exist starting with the Heian (Peace and Tranquility) period (794-1185). A time of enlightened rule, this era, marked by the founding of the great imperial capital at Kyoto, saw a flowering of culture and civic life. Genji Monogatari “Tale of Genji” dates from this time and contains one of the first known allusions to male love, in which a spurned suitor consoles himself with the younger brother of his beloved:

    “Well, you at least must not abandon me. Genji pulled the boy down besides him. The boy was delighted, such were Genji’s youthful charms. Genji for his part, or so one is informed, found the boy more attractive than his chilly sister.”(7)

Likewise, Ise Monogatari “Tale of Ise”, written in 951, contains a poem from a man separated from his friend:

    “I cannot believe that you
      Are far away
      For I can
      Never forget you
      And thus your face
      Is always before me.”

Afterwards mentions of male love become more and more common. In the 1100’s we see the first mentions of Kukai as the father of nanshoku. Kukai, or as he was known after his death, Kobo Daishi “the great master from Kobo”, was the founder of the Japanese branch of Vajrayana Buddhism, founding the esoteric Shingon school in the year 816 at Mount Koya after his return from China where he received the teachings and transmission from the sixth Patriarch. Great as his religious and linguistic achievements were (he also translated the sacred texts from Chinese into Japanese, and devised the first Japanese alphabet), we have no basis to credit him with the introduction of male love as well. Nonetheless legend has it that he learned about the joys of nanshoku in China (universally renowned from ancient times for its rich homoerotic tradition, ranging from imperial favorites at the court to sanctioned boy-marriages for the commoners) and then implanted the practice in Japan upon his return. Indeed, Mount Koya became synonymous with shudo in the poetry and prose of medieval Japan.(9)

Though the tales ascribing the provenance of shudo to Mt. Koya may be doubtful, the prevalence of that love in Buddhist monasteries is not. In fact, male love in the form of affairs between monks and chigo, their acolytes, predates by many years its incorporation into samurai practice (and was to give rise in later years to a rich homoerotic literature known as chigo monogatari, “acolyte stories”). The Tendai priest Genshin inveighs against those “…who have accosted another’s acolyte and wickedly violated him” in a text printed as early as 985.
(10) Of course we may fairly ask whether he railed at the violation per se, or at the fact that the acolyte was not one’s own. Despite his fulminations, the practice continues unabated, supported by the logic that the monkish vows of chastity apply to the love of the opposite sex only, as expounded by the writer and poet Kitamura Kigin seven hundred years later:

    “The Buddha preached that Mount Imose (a metaphor for the love of women) was a place to be avoided, and thus priests of the dharma first entered this way as an outlet for their feelings, since their hearts were, after all, made of neither stone nor wood.”(11)

In another parallel with Greek culture, the practice of male love spawned a voluminous body of prose, drama, and poetry. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, little has been translated to date, however recent scholarship in gay studies is beginning to make up for past neglect. Besides the work of Kitamura Kigin, who compiled an anthology of male love poetry titled “Rock Azaleas” we also have Ihara Saikaku’s “The Great Mirror of Male Love”, a collection of forty short stories on the subject of love between men and youths, published in 1687. These two titles will have to stand alone as examples of classical Japanese homoerotic literature rendered in English, but hundreds of works remain to be translated, including a great number of kabuki and noh plays.

While the history of Japan through the end of the sixteenth century is one of warring feudal lords, with the ascendance of Tokugawa Ieyasu to the shogunate in 1603 the strife came to an end, and the country entered a period of tranquility that was to last two hundred and fifty years. One of the effects of this pacification was the decline in the power and influence of the warrior class. Conversely, the bourgeoisie thrived under the new stability, and began adopting many of the customs and practices that had been the exclusive domain of the samurai. The fighting techniques of the bushi, “warriors”, were adapted as sports or spiritual disciplines (judo, kyudo, kendo, etc.), and the practice of shudo gave way to a culture of traveling boy actors whose favors were vied for (or bought) by hordes of admiring dandies. The public displays of the fans caused such commotion that laws had to be passed restricting the haircuts and costumes of the actors, so as not to over-inflame the passions of the audience. Boy brothels also came to be a common feature of the pleasure districts of the larger towns, and the currency of nanshoku was gradually converted from honor and giri, “duty”, into gold and silver coins.

This shift presaged the eventual decline and disappearance of socially sanctioned male love in Japan:

    “…the decline of shudo had already begun in the eighteenth century when Japan was still in the middle of its long period of voluntary seclusion. The spirit of shudo as a way’ began to retreat, whereas a sensualist homosexuality flourished more and more. The fact that after the end of the eighteenth century the kagema’ (boy actors) mostly dressed themselves as girls, while during the Genroku period they had dressed themselves gracefully as beautiful young men, also indicates a serious degeneration of the homosexual tradition.”(12)

This latest turn of events again precisely mirrors the Greek experience, and evokes in haunting fashion the dynamics of the decline and fall of pederasty in the Greco-Roman world. There too male love lost its identification with the warrior ethic and pedagogic ideals, and with it its moral foundations. It too became commercialized as it succumbed to the decadence and abuses of the late Roman empire. The reaction to those excesses solidified as the anti-erotic utilitarian view of sexuality of the early Christian dogma, the same teachings which, fifteen hundred years later, were to administer the coup de grace to nanshoku as well.

Thus Western influence had a decisive role to play in this reversal of fortune. From their very first contacts with the remote island empire, European explorers and merchants bristled at the “loose morals” and “depravity” of their hosts. The Portuguese writer Luis Frois, in his Historia do Japao, documents an encounter in 1550 between the party of Jesuit friar Francis Xavier and the daimyo of Yamaguchi, Ouchi Yoshitaka:

    “The lord welcomed them warmly and said that he would like to hear the new doctrine of the kirishitan’ (Christians). Brother Juan Fernandez read in a loud voice from a notebook in which were translated into Japanese the account of the Creation and the Ten Commandments. Having touched on the sin of idolatry and on the other faults committed by the Japanese, he arrived at the sin of Sodom, which he described as ‘something so abominable that it is more unclean than the pig and more low than the dog and other animals without reason’. Yoshitaka then seemed to be angered and made a sign for them to go out. But the king made not a word of reply, and Fernandez believed that he would order them to be killed.”(13)

Though the slowly increasing presence of Christian missionaries lent support to those who disapproved of male love practices, it was not until the Meiji restoration of 1867, a direct result of the opening of Japan carried out under the threat of American guns in 1854, that Western Christian morality began to dominate Japanese thought, and wakashudo went into its final eclipse. Tahuro Inagaki, in The Aesthetics of Adolescent Love, writes:

    “Without our noticing it this cultural tradition has been lost to us… When we were schoolboys we often heard of an affair in which two students had quarreled on account of a beautiful young boy and had ended by drawing knives... But since the new era of Taisho (1912–1926) we no longer hear of this kind of thing. The shudo which had clung on to life has now reached its end.”(14)

Written by Andrew Calimach © 2008



  • Leupp, Gary. Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. University of California Press, 1997.
  • Pflugfelder, Gregory. Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950. University of California Press, 2000.
  • Saikaku, Ihara (Paul Gordon Schalow, trans.). The Great Mirror of Male Love. Stanford University Press, 1990.
  • Watanabe, Tsuneo and Iwata, Jun'ichi. The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality. GMP, London, 1989

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Andrew Calimach, World History of Male Love, "Homosexual Traditions", The Beautiful Way of the Samurai, 2000 <>





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Author's note: I am thrilled to report that the new century has already made a decided break with the past one: as we were winding up the updating of the Androphile site, a new movie was being released at the Cannes Film Festival (May 2000). Titled Gohatto, (“taboo” or “forbidden”), directed by the renowned director Nagisa Oshima (of In the Realm of the Senses fame), and with Ryuhei Matsuda in the lead role, the movie depicts the turmoil caused in a samurai detachment when a young and flirtatious warrior joins the troop, and several of the older samurai compete for his favors. The topic of male love is (reportedly) treated openly and depicted in a historically accurate way, up to and including the tragic ending.
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  1. Ijiri Chusuke, 1482 "The Essence of Jakudo" in The Love of the Samurai, A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality by Tsuneo Watanabe and Jun’ichi Iwata, 1989, London, The Gay Men’s Press, p. 109.  gay love
  2. Gary P. Leupp, 1995, Male Colors, the Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan, Berkely, The University of California Press, p. 53  gay love
  3. J. Z. Eglinton, trans. 1964, Greek Love, New York, Oliver Layton Press, p. 248.  gay love
  4. Watanabe and Iwata, 1989, p. 113.  gay love
  5. William Scott Wilson, trans. 1979. Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai New York and Tokyo, Kodansha International, p. 58.  gay love
  6. Idem, p. 59.  gay love
  7. Edward C. Seidensticker, trans. 1976, The Tale of Genji, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, p. 48.  gay love
  8. Helen Craig McCullough, trans. 1968, The Tales of Ise, Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan, Stanford, Ca., Stanford University Press pp. 101-102.  gay love
  9. Leupp, 1995, pp. 28-32.  gay love
  10. Ibid., p. 31.  gay love
  11. Paul Gordon Schalow, trans. 1996, Kitamura Kigin, "Wild Azaleas" (Iwatsutsuji) in Partings at Dawn, an Anthology of Japanese Gay Literature, San Francisco, Gay Sunshine Press p. 103.  gay love
  12. Watanabe and Iwata, 1989, p. love
  13. Ibid., pp. love
  14. Ibid., p. love
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