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Japanese Literature  
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Tale of Genji (Eleventh Century)

Several interesting depictions of same-sex love date from the period when women writers at court were first developing a vernacular literature. The eleventh-century Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari; tr. Seidensticker, 1976), by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, is widely acclaimed as the great masterpiece of Japanese literature and is an uncommonly rich source for understanding what sexuality might have meant to Heian courtiers within their polygamous society.

It contains no obvious depictions of same-sex love, but male friendships are repeatedly eroticized through competition for women. In one instance, the tale's hero, Genji, is depicted as spending the night with the younger brother of a woman who spurned him.

The most complex exploration of a same-sex relationship, however, is in the character of Kaoru, known as Genji's son. Kaoru is introspective, does not respond erotically to women, and in general goes against all conventions of the amorous Heian male courtier.

Kaoru learns in the course of the story that his birth was the result of an illicit love between Genji's young wife, the Third Princess, and another man. This fact establishes in Kaoru a father-complex that resolves itself somewhat when he apprentices himself to study Buddhist scripture under the tutelage of a saintly man known as the Eighth Prince, half-brother to Genji, who lives in a remote town outside the capital in self-imposed exile with his daughters.

Kaoru finds stability and fulfillment as the spiritual student of the Eighth Prince, but three years later, the Prince dies and leaves Kaoru bereft. The final chapters of the Tale of Genji record Kaoru's attempt to ease his loss by forming relationships, none of them sexual, with the Prince's three daughters.

The first daughter commits suicide by starvation rather than make herself vulnerable to Kaoru; the second marries his amorous rival, Niou; and the third is so torn between Kaoru and Niou that she attempts suicide and ultimately renounces the world to live in seclusion as a Buddhist nun.

None of the sisters can serve Kaoru successfully as a surrogate for their father, and at the tale's end, Kaoru is still ensnared in his desire to recapture his love for the Eighth Prince. It is a powerful portrait of a man unable to achieve Buddhist enlightenment because of his bonds to another man.

The Changelings (Twelfth Century)

Another interesting portrait explicitly inspired by elements of Kaoru's characterization in the Tale of Genji appears late in the Heian Period in a tale called The Changelings (Torikaebaya monogatari; tr. Willig, 1983), whose author is unknown but who is thought to have been a woman at court. It tells the story of a female who is raised in her brother's role as a boy and passes in court society as a man, and her brother who conversely assumes his sister's female role at court.

The switch is depicted as an odd situation arising, in Buddhist terms, from the special workings of cause and effect that dictate the karmic fates of the siblings. The female "man" takes a wife, who is unaware that anything is amiss in the marriage until she has a sexual experience with her husband's friend, Saishó. When the "husband" hears that his wife is pregnant, he feels betrayed by his wife and suspects his friend.

Saishó has indeed discovered the deception and eventually ends up impregnating the "husband," whose beauty he has always admired, thus forcing the whole unstable situation to a crisis. After both "husband" and wife bear their children by Saishó, the "husband" reverts to the woman's role previously filled by her brother and soon achieves the enviable position of being named consort to the emperor, while her brother takes over his sister's role as a man, including wife and court rank.

Saishó is kept in the dark about the switch, however, and his resultant confusion gives the otherwise tormented tale a wonderfully humorous touch. The narrative is a sophisticated exploration of love relations across gender and sex lines and addresses the seemingly modern question of discrepancies between biological sex and acquired gender identities, and their relation to individual human personality.

Male-Male Love in the Buddhist Temple Culture

With the emergence after the twelfth century of a temple culture informed by courtly tradition, literary activity shifted into the hands of the Buddhist clergy; depictions of male-male love changed accordingly. Members of the male Buddhist clergy generally took vows to avoid sexual contact with women, but sexual and romantic relationships with boy acolytes (chigo) seem to have flourished in the temples as what was often described as a natural "outlet" for the men's emotional and sexual needs.

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