Recently a Japanese TV program highlighted an interesting bit of historical trivia: The most common type of revenge killing in the Edo period was between gay lovers. It’s a statistic that shocked many viewers in modern Japan, but there is ample evidence to support that a whole lot of gay sex was going on in the country from between 1400 and 1900.
It was at first a playful fancy of the ruling classes but then grew into a cold yet efficiently run military system of battlefield man-pleasuring. However, as we can see from the previously mentioned little factoid, once guys start letting emotions get involved, the whole thing starts to fall apart.
▼ “What is this…? Well I’ll be damned. I still like samurai though.”
— 上条真琴 (@Makoto_Kamijo) 2015年1月17日
■ Make war not love
For well over a millennium there have been homosexual acts among the elites of Japan similar to the same master-slave relations that have occurred in many ancient societies at one point or another. By the 15th century, the custom had already carried over to the samurai classes too. It was somewhere around this time that it took the interesting euphemism of “shudo” which literally translates to “way of the people” and is the shortened from of “wakashudo” (way of the young people).
▼ Tale of Shudo (1661)
During the Warring States period over the 16th century, it became a practice for generals to keep attractive young male pages on hand for when they needed to let off some steam. It was a fairly widespread practice among warlords during the time which really puts a new spin on all those NHK period dramas. However, not everyone was on the shudobandwagon. Mitsumasa Ikeda, a one-time lord of Himeji Castle in the early 17th century, had a strict anti-shudo policy by penalty of expulsion.
▼ Ikeda loved his subjects, just not in that way.
It might not be fair to call this a “gay” custom, though. It was probably more along the lines of sex between prison inmates as romance didn’t seem to play a part…yet.
■ The war is over, but the party is just starting
As the Warring States Period came to a close, the use of page-boys for homosexual sex near the battlefield became completely unnecessary, but it continued nonetheless. Some veterans seemed to have acquired a taste for danshoku, or man-on-man sex, and weren’t ready to let it go.
▼ The kanji for danshoku are the ones for “man” and “color” which is just an embarrassing Western tattoo waiting to happen.
However, a change in roles had taken place during peace-time. The original master-slave setup had evolved into a more mutual relationship. However, It retained the seniority hierarchy as found in most other parts of Asian societies like work and family with the elder man called nensha and the younger called wakashu. The whole scene was still being called shudo though…it must have made sense to the people at the time for it to stick so well.
▼ Fukuroi Station – Ando Hiroshige (1840s)
(censored out the genitalia which can be seen by clicking the image link)
■ All fun and games until someone gets murdered
And so, homosexuality in Japan went on without too much trouble into the middle of the Edo period 1700s, but by this point it could be said that things went too far. Among the younger wakashu, one’s sexual partner had become more important to their identity than the shogun they were aligned with. As a result it led to the same sort of retaliatory violence that nationality can often do.
Love triangles would often lead to double-homicides and blood-for-blood feuds from slain lovers ensued. It grew into a major social problem and some lords began to take measures to diffuse it by cracking down on shudo in their regions. Time seemed to do the job anyway however, as shudo gradually went out of fashion and by the end of the Edo period and 19th century vanished with the last of the samurai.
Thus ended widespread homosexual culture in Japan. Nowadays, many gay men in Japan remain closeted and gay marriage seems totally off the table in government. It’s hard to say why exactly. Japan doesn’t have the religious hang-ups of other countries and most people don’t even remember the bloody history of shudo to care. But as this history lesson has taught us: Time can bring considerable change to any society. Who knows what awaits in the future?