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Japanese Literature  
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The trajectory of Japanese literature and its treatment of same-sex love differs radically from that of Western literatures, thus bringing into question the very notion of a Japanese "gay and lesbian literary tradition." Nevertheless, there are numerous literary works dating from the classical court culture of the Heian Period (794-1185) up to modern times that will be of interest to anyone concerned with understanding the various meanings ascribed to sexual and emotional relations between members of the same sex in Japan.

This essay will guide the modern reader through Japanese literary texts with an eye to placing depictions of same-sex love within their proper literary historical context, thereby allowing modern readers to read with a minimum of distortion. What emerges will be a non-Western image of same-sex love that can enrich and expand the horizons of the contemporary gay and lesbian reader.

General Characteristics of Japanese Literary History

But first, several general characteristics of Japanese literary history need to be clarified. Literacy in Japan began with the emerging imperial court's official encounters with Chinese literary culture beginning in the fifth century. Literature was thus at first the concern of a small elite--consisting of courtiers, Buddhist priests and nuns, and later, high-ranking warriors and rich merchants--that adopted Chinese literature wholesale as its literary and cultural heritage.

Except for poetry composed in vernacular Japanese, Chinese was the literate language of the elite until the ninth century. From the tenth century, a vernacular literature came into being at the hands of court women who were largely excluded from the benefits of Chinese literacy but who were deeply influenced by Buddhist thought. Writing in vernacular Japanese gradually came to be practiced also by men.

Late in the twelfth century, the collapse of the centralized court led to a diaspora effect in which the literate elite scattered across Japan, spreading its courtly culture to provincial warlords and their samurai warriors. Though warlords held the reins of political power at this time, they hungered for the cultural legitimacy that only the court elite could provide. This period represented the first major transferral of court culture outside the court.

After a period of prolonged political instability and civil war, Japan was unified in 1600 under the powerful Tokugawa shóguns, whose base of power was in Edo. Unification led to the dramatic growth of urban centers in Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo in the seventeenth century and to the emergence of a population of artisans and merchants who amassed great wealth but who were despised as unproductive members within the social hierarchy.

The urban classes nevertheless were able to build a vibrant popular literary culture by drawing on the traditions of court poetry and prose that had been passed on to the samurai. This popular culture was created in almost total isolation from the rest of the world, imposed by an official government policy of isolation from the West.

Tokugawa hegemony lasted uninterrupted until 1868 when foreign pressure led to the samurai system being abolished and the Emperor Meiji was elevated to the position of monarch within a constitutional monarchy. The decision by Japan's leaders to integrate Japan with the West militarily, socially, and to some extent culturally brought with it a huge influx of European literary ideas that altered permanently the way Japanese would read and write sexuality.

Changing Depictions of Same-Sex Love

Within this movement of literary history--initially turned toward the continental culture of China, then inward, and finally toward Europe and the United States--the depiction of same-sex love ebbs and flows in interesting ways. Throughout the entire tradition, depictions of male-male love (nanshoku) predominate overwhelmingly.

In the premodern period, these depictions came out of three major cultural structures that privileged male-male sexuality: the temple culture of monks and priests, the samurai culture of the warrior, and the urban townsman's culture of the kabuki theater, each of which took its position in turn as the dominant form of male love from approximately the twelfth century into the nineteenth century.

With Japan's entry into the world as a modern nation-state in 1868, the Japanese elite began the conscious introduction of new discourses of sexuality, including the discourses of law and medical science then prevalent in Europe that labeled homosexuality as criminal or abnormal. (Interestingly, Christian religious discourse was largely ignored.)

It was the medical discourse of the Taishó Era (1912-1925) that first problematized female homosexuality and brought it to the attention of writers in a way that traditional Buddhist-based discourses had failed to do. Although difficult to characterize briefly, contemporary discourses of sexuality in Japan can be said to blend elements of medical discourse with popular conceptions of homosexuality in a way similar to but ultimately distinct from most contemporary Western societies.

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Popular legend attributes the introduction of male love to the great spiritual leader Kúkai (Kóbó Daishi, 774-835).
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