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Japanese Art  
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The towns also supported large numbers of kabuki actors who, since women were banned from the stage, played both male and female roles. Both male players of female roles (onnagata) and the players of youthful male roles (wakashu) were available as passive sexual partners for adult men who could afford their services.

Popular at this time were kabuki guidebooks that contained pictures of the actors and praised their beauty, skill and grace, hinting at the post-performance favors that they also excelled in; some offered not only pictures of the actors' faces but also of their erect penises.

The development of woodblock printing made single sheet posters of these actors available even to men and women (for they were also available for hire to female patrons) of humble means. Saikaku's Great Mirror describes an elderly priest's hermitage in which every inch of the walls has been covered by these early versions of pin-up idols.

Most woodblock artists produced erotic prints known as shunga ("spring pictures") and many of them depict homosexual relations between both men and women. Sometimes, an adult male is depicted in a sexual tryst with both a youth and a woman and sometimes with an onnagata or man dressed as a woman, but the adult male is always depicted as the penetrative partner.

Women are sometimes depicted pleasuring themselves with a dildo or pleasuring both themselves and their female partner with a double-headed dildo. But, since the large majority of woodblock artists were male and their anticipated audience was also largely male, it is difficult to read these images as expressions of lesbian desire. There do not seem to be any representations dating from this time that depict women as partners for women outside this economy of male desire.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912) Japan turned towards the west in an effort to modernize. This meant that aspects of Japanese culture deemed "uncivilized" by the censorious Victorian gaze had to be disposed of. Sexually explicit art in general and homosexual representations in particular went underground. Even the phallic stones that had guarded shrine entrances for generations were hidden away or, in many cases, destroyed.

However, this prudish period in Japanese history, which lasted until Japan's defeat in World War II, encouraged a number of artists to address sexual topics in a more self-consciously political manner. These included the artists of the MAVO group who, in the 1920s, played with gender identity in both their art and their lives, sometimes appearing cross-dressed.

Cross-dressing as a shock tactic has also been taken up by the contemporary artist Yasumasa Morimura who often plays with cross-dressed images of himself in his work.

Post World War II Art

It is not until after World War II that art that might be understood as "gay" in the Western sense developed. At this time, a boom in publishing took place and a number of erotic titles became available. Known as hentai zasshi (or "perverse magazines") they featured lurid tales and illustrations of a wide range of "paraphilias" including bestiality, , bondage and both male and female homosexuality.

One such magazine, Fuzoku kitan ("Strange Stories of the Sex World"), featured the work of Go Mishima (1921-1989), who drew pictures of naked, sexually aroused men in a variety of bondage/discipline sadomasochistic situations and whose work has been exhibited in New York and published in the American S/M magazine Drummer.

Mishima (not to be confused with the author Yukio Mishima) went on to have a long career drawing for Japan's gay magazines, the first of which, Barazoku ("Rose Clan"), was published in 1971. Mishima drew images of men entirely unlike the feminine beautiful boys of the earlier tradition, instead focusing upon rough macho types with short hair and tattoos.

This macho style reached its full development in the work of gay artist Gengoroh Tagame (b. 1964) whose sadomasochistic manga (or illustrated novels) have been serialized in a number of Japan's gay magazines, most recently G-Men. There is now an extensive genre of gay manga art created by self-identified gay men in Japan.

However, the most prolific illustrators of male homosexual love scenes are not men but women, and they appear not in the gay press but in manga aimed at a young female audience. It is women manga illustrators and not gay men who have inherited the tradition of depicting "beautiful boys" in homosexual situations.

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