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literature

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Japanese Literature  
 
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Yosano Akiko and Miyamoto Yuriko

By the 1920s, the influence of Marxist thought and ideas of human liberation led to a certain amount of writing that equated same-sex love with personal liberty. Notable among these were poems by the great modern woman poet Yosano Akiko (1878-1942), inspired by her love for another woman, Yamakawa Tomiko; and the autobiographical writings of Miyamoto Yuriko (1899-1951) in which she treats her seven-year relationship with the self-identified lesbian journalist and scholar of Russian literature, Yuasa Yoshiko.

Both writers believed that modern industrialized societies devalued women, and for them woman's love for woman was part of a political and personal stance regarding women's equality and worth.

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Mishima Yukio

The modern Japanese writer best known for depicting homosexual love is surely Mishima Yukio (1925-1970), who created memorable portraits of male homosexuality in Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no kokuhaku [1949]; tr. Weatherby, 1958) and Forbidden Colors (Kinjiki [1951-1953]; tr. Marks, 1968), and of female homosexuality in Temple of Dawn (Akatsuki no tera [1968-1970]; tr. Saunders and Seigle, 1973).

Confessions of a Mask recounts the young male protagonist's growing awareness of homosexual feelings pivoting around certain intense sadomasochistic images that are inspired by, for example, the sight of the dirty naked legs of a night-soil man or a painting by Italian artist Guido Reni of St. Sebastian writhing in agony.

These images haunt the college-age protagonist as he attempts to develop a "normal" relationship with a girlfriend. It is in some ways a typical gay "coming out" (or coming of age) story and is often read as autobiographical, though Mishima vehemently denied that he was trying to reveal anything about himself in it.

Forbidden Colors is a more abstract depiction of a male homosexual relationship, again problematized by a failed relationship with a woman, in which a rich older man buys the love of a young man who is stunningly handsome but who lacks the ability to love. As in Mann's Death in Venice, the older man's longing for the beauty of youth is associated with aestheticism and death.

In Temple of Dawn, Mishima depicts lesbian lovers in the slightly artificial context of a Buddhist belief in reincarnation; one of the women is characterized as the reincarnation of a young man once loved by the aging protagonist of the story, who spies on the women while they are making love in order to ascertain by a birthmark that she is indeed the youth reborn.

The women's lesbian relationship per se is not central to the story, seeming more like a mechanical literary device, and the depiction thus lacks the personal intensity and literary power Mishima could muster when writing about male homosexuality, which was closer to his heart.

Mishima is said to have boasted that Confessions of a Mask was the first important Japanese homosexual narrative since Saikaku's The Great Mirror of Male Love, but a major difference exists between Mishima and the tradition he admired: Mishima wrote in an environment in which homosexuality was stigmatized.

The title Confessions of a Mask can be understood as an attempt to speak through the stigma ("mask") about the truth ("confession") of homosexual feelings. Mishima's literary homosexuality is always struggling to emerge from the shadow of deviance in which medical and popular discourses placed it, into the sunlight of an unstigmatized tradition.

He was acutely aware of the samurai tradition of male love and wrote extensively about his responses to that tradition in Yukio Mishima on Hagakure (Hagakure nyúmon [1968]; tr. Sparling, 1977). When Mishima and his college-age male lover, Morita Masakatsu, died in a spectacular double-suicide by sword in 1970, it may have been Mishima's ultimate attempt to recreate in nonliterary form the tradition of samurai male love.

Takahashi Mutsuo

A modern writer befriended by Mishima who has achieved acclaim for his recognizably "gay" aesthetic is the poet Takahashi Mutsuo (b. 1937). His English language Poems of a Penisist (tr. Sato, 1975) has been compared to Ginsberg's Howl in its wild power, and a subsequent collection in English titled A Bunch of Keys (tr. Sato, 1984) established Takahashi as the spokesman for a generation of self-identified gay Japanese men seeking a sense of liberation and pride.

Oddly enough, Takahashi calls himself a Catholic and draws on the imagery and form of Catholic prayer in many of his poems. "Ode" (1971; revised 1980), for example, begins "In the name of / man, member, / and the holy fluid / AMEN," and then proceeds to devise a virtual theology of homosexuality in which the phallus is God, and the mouth is the great Void in man's soul that only God can fill. Needless to say, Takahashi's brand of Catholicism is not likely to be endorsed by the Pope.

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