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Japanese Art  
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Japanese culture both now and historically has been replete with images that, although not obviously homosexual, can be given readings, as well as a wide range of representations that contemporary viewers would understand to be homosexual.

Pre-Historic and Folk Art

Pottery Haniwa figures from Japan's prehistoric period portray male figures with their erect penises clearly displayed as well as pottery phalli. Intriguingly, many of these images display wear marks that suggest they were rubbed over a long period of time, probably in the hope that they would confer fertility or increased sexual stamina, but the potential of fondling these images, too, cannot be overlooked.

Japanese folk religion has long been concerned with fertility and even today there are shrines in the countryside that contain ancient stone phalli as well as enormous phalli carved out of single tree trunks. These phalli show great attention to detail and at festival time are paraded around the village by men dressed only in loincloths.

The homoeroticism of these events has not been lost on present-day Japanese gay men, and Japan's main "naked festivals" (hadaka matsuri) are advertised and reported upon in Japan's gay press; furthermore, festival scenes and props feature in some contemporary gay video pornography.

Religious Art

Further homoerotic images, this time of beautiful temple acolytes, date from the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods, when Japan was under pervasive Buddhist influence. At this time, Buddhist monasteries had become renowned as sites for homosexual love in which an older priest (nenja) would establish bonds of friendship and love with a child acolyte (chigo).

The representation of youthful male figures as repositories of ideal beauty was facilitated by Buddhist and Shinto myths that taught that women, because of their menstrual cycle, were "defiling" and therefore dangerous to male spiritual practitioners.

In religious painting, the beautiful youth became a central figure, and key religious heroes from the Buddhist pantheon were depicted as beautiful boys. These included Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon School (in 806), who reputedly introduced boy love from China; and Monjushiri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, who later became patron saint of male-male love because of the resemblance of the latter part of his name to the Japanese word for "ass" (shiri).

These religious images, in which the youths are depicted with white, powdered moon-like faces, long hair, and dressed in colorful silk, hint at homoeroticism.

It is not until the fourteenth century that we have images depicting unambiguous homosexual interaction. One famous scroll, dated to 1321, is known as the Chigo no soshi or "Chigo notebook" and concerns the relationship between an old abbot and his young acolyte.

Because of his advanced age, the abbot was unable to attain a firm erection and consequently could not penetrate his young lover. Such was the acolyte's devotion, however, that he employed a servant to loosen his anus with unguents and a large dildo in preparation for his nightly visits to the abbot's chambers. The servant's own evident arousal as well as the erection of the youth are clearly portrayed in the scroll.

Unfortunately we do not possess any pictorial or narrative evidence from Japanese Buddhist nunneries that might suggest the development of a parallel genre of female homoeroticism.

The Tokugawa Period to World War II

If explicitly homosexual themes first entered Japanese art via Buddhist monasteries, it was in the worldly and sophisticated culture of the towns that these images were most fully elaborated. During the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), castle towns were erected throughout Japan and their samurai occupants, many of whom had been educated in Buddhist monasteries during their youth, carried on the transgenerational homosexual practices characteristic of these establishments.

At this time adult male samurai could establish bonds with young boys of samurai descent who had not yet gone through their coming of age ceremony. Known as wakashudo or "the way of youths," these transgenerational homosexual relationships were subject to a strict code of etiquette and celebrated in works of art and fiction, the most famous being Ihara Saikaku's Great Mirror of Male Love (1687).

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Two shunga (erotic prints, both ca 1750).
Top: A Samurai (right) with a male actor by Miyagawa Isshô
Above: Detail from a print by Suzuki Harunobu.

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