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social sciences

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Male homosexuality has a long and well-attested history in Japan going back at least a thousand years, but it was not until modern times that female same-sex eroticism gained similar exposure. Today, blending elements from indigenous traditions and recently imported western discourses of sexual identity, Japan is home to one of the most diverse and dynamic cultures in Asia.

The Japanese entertainment world has long supported openly gay, , and personalities, and in recent decades there has been a boom in queer-themed art, film, and literature. Tokyo, Osaka, and numerous smaller cities support significant queer communities and there are a growing number of lesbian and gay rights organizations.

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Pre-modern Japan

During Japan's feudal period (1600-1867), elite men were free to engage in both same- and opposite-sex affairs. At this time, nanshoku (eroticism between men) and joshoku (eroticism between men and women) were not seen as mutually incompatible. Wakashudo, or "the Way of Boys," was a socially validated mode of sexual expression where adult males, who might also be married, were able to pursue male youths who had not yet undergone their coming-of-age ceremonies.

Elite men were also able to pursue trangendered males of all ages from the lower classes who worked as prostitutes or actors in the all-male kabuki theater. However, neither the adult male lovers nor their youthful or transgendered partners were considered "homosexual" in the modern sense. Youths were expected to give up the "passive" role in relation to adult men once they came of age, and transgendered actors and prostitutes were considered to have chosen that lifestyle out of financial necessity.

Early-modern Japan

The Meiji period (1867-1912), during which Japan was opened to the West, coincided with the development of European sexology. From this time on, discussions of "perverse sexuality" began to circulate in popular magazines that advocated the improvement of public morals. The previous discourse of nanshoku and the transgender practices associated with the kabuki theater were portrayed as feudal, incompatible with "civilized morality," and something that ought to be eradicated.

However, the harsh legal persecution of homosexuals that was taking place in most European states and in the United States at this time was never reduplicated in Japan. Except for a short period between 1873 and 1881, when "" was criminalized, Japan has never legislated against either male or female homosexual acts.

Despite the prevalence of a new discourse pathologizing same-sex relationships, popular culture remained an innovative site for gender play and experimentation, especially in the all-woman theater troupe, the Takarazuka, founded in 1913. The Takarazuka's "male-role" players or otokoyaku, like the onnagata of the kabuki theater, were often implicated in homosexual scandals, which helped increase the public visibility of lesbianism.

Also, for the first time in Japanese history, during the early twentieth century large numbers of young women were leaving home and being billeted together in boarding schools and factory dormitories where intimate relationships often developed between them. Referring to them as "class S" in which the "S" stood for "sister," "shojo" (girl), or even "sex," the media were fairly indulgent of these partnerships, it being expected that when the girls graduated or left work, marriage would "cure" them.

Post-war Japan

After Japan's defeat in World War II, the Occupation forces were more interested in monitoring political than sexual discussion, and it was possible for new kinds of sex-related publications to emerge that were considerably more frank than any publications that existed in English at this time. From the early 1950s, "perverse" or "mania" magazines, as they were termed, had an extremely wide range of interests and, purporting to offer true accounts, drew upon anecdotes about sexual behavior from Japan's feudal past as well as from European and Asian societies.

Significantly, these early magazines did not segregate material into hetero- or homosexual-themed issues, as became increasingly common in the 1970s, but presented a wide range of "perverse desires," including sado-masochism, scatology, cross-dressing, and male and female homosexuality. Importantly, the magazines featured stories about homosexual meeting places, and their readers' columns functioned as rudimentary personal ads, enabling men and women who expressed an interest in "sodomia" or "lesbos" to begin to network and set up discussion groups, newsletters, and social organizations for the first time.

According to reports in these magazines, the most visible homosexual group to appear immediately after the war were the dansho or cross-dressing male prostitutes, who plied their trade beneath the trees in Tokyo's Ueno Park. Several reasons are given for an apparent "boom" in male prostitution, the main one being that many men had been introduced to homosexual sex and developed a liking for it while serving in the army.

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Top: Japan and neighboring countries in 2004.
Center: An eighteenth-century Japanese print of a man with two youths.
Above: A photograph of a street scene from Tokyo's Shinjuku District created by David Monniaux in 2005. Today, the Shinjuku District houses more than 200 gay bars.

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