This idea for this essay arose out of
material I had gathered for my Ph.D. thesis on the representations
of homosexuality in Japanese popular culture. In order to contextualise
modern understandings of homosexual desire as experienced between
men and between women, I found it was necessary to go increasingly
further back into Japanese history so that I might better understand
the foundations, or what Michel Foucault terms the ‘archaeology,’
which supports modern understandings and representations of homosexuality.
In so doing it became clear that ‘sex’ was not only a
culture-bound concept but that the meaning and parameters of this
term also changed enormously over time even within the same culture.
As Foucault has argued ‘it is precisely [the] idea of sex in
itself that we cannot accept without examination’. It also became clear that, if I was to understand
Japanese ‘homosexuality’ in both its present and historical
contexts, I needed to bring under examination a whole host of concepts
that implicitly structured the way I ‘think’ sex.
The very long and complex history of
homosexual relations within Japanese Buddhist institutions has only
now come to light in the English-speaking world with the recent
translation of a few key documents and a number of commentaries
on them (these are referenced throughout the pages below). I was
struck, as I hope the reader of this essay will be, by how normative
sexual interactions between men in Buddhist institutions in Japan
became, and how these relationships were accepted by the wider society
with equanimity. Indeed, as I show, homoerotic relationships that
had developed in Buddhist institutions actually served as the basis
for wider same-sex sexual relationships between men throughout Japanese
society from the thirteenth to the end of the nineteenth century.
My point in making this research available
in this journal is not to argue that such relationships should become
normative today, for the present configuration of sexuality within
modern western culture makes this inconceivable. Rather, I would
like to draw attention to the social forces that make sexual friendships
between older and younger men ‘ideal’ forms of relationship
in some societies and yet define such relationships as abusive or
perverse in others. In making sense of this problem, I have found
the insightful work of Michel Foucault and his various postmodern
and feminist heirs to be most useful. These thinkers have done
much to show how the notion of ‘sex’ in general, and more
specifically, how the idea that individuals inhabit or express themselves
through distinct ‘sexualities’ is a modern innovation
confined largely to those cultures with their roots in northern
Europe. I found that Foucault’s ideas, which so far have only
really been tested in research done in western societies, were also
useful when applied to Japan, a country whose understandings of
sexuality have been informed by Buddhist ideas and practices.
I am increasingly convinced that ‘sex’
is invariably tied in to understandings of gender and that what
is considered appropriate sexual behaviour for male bodies and female
bodies is dependent, in most part, upon cultural constructions of
‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ which vary widely
over time and across cultures. For various reasons, in Japan the
Buddhist priesthood and the samurai military caste constructed a
vision of the female body in such a way as to minimize its attractiveness.
Conversely, the youthful male body was constructed as optimally
desirable and a fitting object of attraction for adult men. For
men, same-sex sexual options were not distinguished as different
orders of sexual interaction (homosexual as opposed to heterosexual)
definitive of specific types of people (homosexuals as opposed to
heterosexuals) but were instead understood as simply a certain style,
one among many, through which sexual pleasure could be enjoyed.
The youthful male body was constructed and displayed as a fitting
object of aesthetic and sensual appreciation for other men throughout
Japanese history, beginning in Buddhist institutions from the ninth
century and reaching its apogee in the samurai towns of the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries.
Because of the strong reactions that
discussion of homosexuality can produce in Anglo-American cultures, I have tried to make this an academic
argument, referencing all my sources and acknowledging my own speculations
as such. I hope that the material outlined here can encourage people
to think about the issues surrounding homosexuality, same-sex friendship
and the practice of Buddhism in new ways.
and sex in Japan
From the earliest times until today, indigenous
Japanese religion, known as Shinto, has maintained a sex-positive
ideology, particularly with regard to the role of sex in procreation.
Even now, it is possible to see in village festivals processions
which feature enormous carved wooden phalli which are taken out
of the local shrine and paraded around the fields so as to bless
them and make them fecund. Unlike in Christian creation myths where
the advent of awareness of sexual dimorphism is seen to mark a deterioration
in the human condition (resulting in expulsion from Eden), in Japanese
mythology the divine ancestors Izanagi and Izanami are shown to
be curious and experimental about sex. The male Izanagi, tells
his female companion that he would like to take his ‘excessive
part’ and insert it into ‘the part where you are lacking.’
From this divine union springs the Japanese race. Although Shinto
is largely without a developed theological system, when sex is theorized,
it is usually understood to be a good thing, a ‘Way’ or
doo, originating with the divine ancestors. As one seventeenth-century
From the beginning of the two support oomikami, Izanagi
no mikoto and Izanami no mikoto, down to the birds and the beasts
who receive no instruction, the intercourse of male and female is
a way, like nature, that has been transmitted to us. Since the
procreation of descendants is a great enterprise, it must be revered.
The first challenge to Japanese nativism
came with the introduction of Buddhism in the seventh century.
It was in contrast to Buddhism, the ‘Way of the Buddha’,
that native beliefs became codified as Shinto or the ‘Way of
the gods’. It is, of course, impossible to describe the
Buddhist attitude toward sexuality because ‘Buddhism’
is reformulated and re-expressed in different cultures and at different
times, adopting and redefining aspects of the cultures in which
it has taken root. However, as with Christianity, there are broad
outlines or features that have persisted over time and that can
be pointed to when attempting to make generalisations. Firstly,
early Buddhism discerned two forms of lifestyle appropriate to Buddhist
believers: monastic and lay. For those men and women ordained as
bhikkhus or bhikkhunis, total celibacy was required,
while lay followers undertook to take five ‘training principles,’
the third of which was ‘kaamesu micchaacaaraa verama.nii
sikkhaapada.m samaadiyaami’ (I take the rule of training
‘verama.nii sikkhaapada.m samaadiyaami,’ not to
go the wrong way ‘micchaacaaraa,’ for sexual pleasure
‘kaamesu’). Unlike the Christian penitentials of
the medieval period, Buddhist texts do not go into great detail
explicating exactly what the ‘wrong’ and ‘right’
ways regarding sexual pleasure actually are. As with other actions,
they are subject to the application of the golden mean: ‘[t]he
deed which causes remorse afterward and results in weeping is ill-done.
The deed which causes no remorse afterwards and results in joy and
happiness is well done’ (Dhammapada). Rather than essentialising
actions as good (puñña) or bad (paapa), Buddhism instead
utilised an ethic of intention, understanding acts as skilful (kusala)
or unskilful (akusala). Motivations were skilful or unskilful,
not in relation to a creator deity’s designer-realist agenda
but in terms of the degree to which they resulted in a lessening
of desire. In Buddhism, desire was a problem, not because it was
evil but because the attachment it produced caused suffering.
Buddhism was essentially disinterested
in procreation which was, after all, seen as the mechanism whereby
beings were chained to a constant round of rebirths in sa.msaara.
This necessarily brought it into conflict with the indigenous cultures
of Eastern Asia where, under Confucian influence, the perpetuation
of the family line was seen as an obligation to the ancestors.
Yet, although doctrinal Buddhism had little interest in procreation
and never developed a discourse about it, Mahaayaana Buddhism did
utilise the powerful imagery surrounding the sex act as a hermeneutic
device. From the fifth century in northern India, various Buddhist
schools developed which utilised sexual imagery as a means of communicating
metaphysical truths such as the non-differentiation of sa.msaara
and nirvaa.na. Male Buddha and bodhisattva figures were
represented in sexual union with their female consorts, thus giving
a heightened exposure to female elements within the tradition.
Practitioners occasionally went beyond symbolism and integrated
sexual practices into their rituals. However, as with Taoist sexo-yogic
practices designed to promote long life, these practices were not
meant to result in ejaculation but to transmute sexual into spiritual
energy. The Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism founded by Kuukai
(774 -835) developed its own form of Tantra, Tachikawa Ryu, ‘the
main sex cult of Japan’ which taught that the loss of self
in the sex act could lead to an awakening of the spirit. These
developments represent an important difference between Buddhism
and Christianity with regard to sex. As LaFleur comments: ‘there
does not seem to be anything comparable in Europe to the Japanese
Buddhist use of sexual union as either a religious symbol, or as
increasingly became the case, as itself a context for religious
What was remarkable about certain trends within Japanese Buddhism
was that sex came to be viewed as a good in itself apart from
its role in procreation. In Japanese Buddhism, the divorce
of sexuality from procreation enabled sex to become a religious
symbol released from the domesticating realm of the family.
Although present, Tantric sexual imagery
which involved the unification of male and female was of marginal
influence in Japan. Far more pervasive in male Buddhist institutions
was the influence of homoerotic and even homosexual imagery where
beautiful acolytes were understood to embody the feminine principle.
The degree to which Buddhism tolerated same-sex sexual activity
even among its ordained practitioners is clear from the popular
myth that the founder of the Shingon school, Kooboo Daishi (Kuukai),
introduced homosexual acts upon his return from study in China in
the early ninth century. This myth was so well known that even
the Portuguese traveller, Gaspar Vilela had heard it. Writing in
1571, he complains of the addiction of the monks of Mt. Hiei to
‘sodomy’, and attributes its introduction to Japan to
Kuukai, the founder of Koyasan, the Shingon headquarters.
Jesuit records of the Catholic mission to Japan are full of rants
about the ubiquity of pederastic passion among the Buddhist clergy.
What particularly riled the missionaries was the widespread acceptance
these practices met with among the general populace. Father Francis
Cabral noted in a letter written in 1596 that ‘abominations
of the flesh’ and ‘vicious habits’ were ‘regarded
in Japan as quite honourable; men of standing entrust their sons
to the bonzes to be instructed in such things, and at the same time
to serve their lust’. Another Jesuit commented
that ‘this evil’ was ‘so public’ that the people
‘are neither depressed nor horrified’
suggesting that same-sex love among the clergy was not considered
The organisation of Buddhist monasteries
into sexually-segregated communities, often set in the remote countryside
or mountains, encouraged the development of a specific style of
homoeroticism revolving around young acolytes or chigo.
The youngest acolytes, called kasshiki could be as little
as five years old and were not required to shave their hair like
monks but wore it ‘shoulder length and modishly’. They decorated their faces with
powder and ‘dressed in finely wrought silken robes and vividly
colored variegated under robes.’ Colcutt points out the problems
caused by boy-love in Zen monasteries of the Muromachi period (1333-1568),
commenting that ‘The presence of large numbers of children
in the monastery could adversely affect standards of discipline.’
The result was that ‘gorgeously arrayed youths became the centre
of admiration in lavish monastic ceremonies that were far in spirit
from the simple, direct search for self advocated by the early Ch’an
[Zen] masters’. Monastic legislators fought the same losing
battle as the shogunate did with the kabuki theatres, when it attempted
to limit the ostentatious dress on stage. Regulations repeatedly
warn against the use of certain fabrics and colours but they seem
to have been implemented with some reluctance, if at all.
The homoerotic environment of Buddhist
monasteries actually inspired a literary genre, Chigo monogatari
(Tales about acolytes), which took as its theme the love between
acolytes (chigo) and their spiritual guides. These homoerotic
relationships were ‘firmly grounded in the familiar structures
of monastic life’
and were meant to appeal to their Buddhist audience. A common theme
of these tales is the transformation of a Buddhist deity, usually
Kannon (Sanskrit Avalokite'svara), Jizoo (skt. Ksitigarbha) or
Monjushiri (Sanskrit Ma~nju'srii), into a beautiful young acolyte. The acolyte then
uses his physical charms to endear himself to an older monk and
thereby lead him to Enlightenment. In the fourteenth-century Chigo
Kannon engi, Kannon takes the form of a beautiful novice to
become the lover of a monk who is longing for companionship in his
old age. After a few years of close companionship, however, the
acolyte dies, leaving the monk desolate. Kannon then appears to
the monk, reveals that he and the acolyte were one and the same
and delivers a discourse on impermanence. Childs comments that:
The homosexual relationship between the monk and the novice
implied in this tale expresses both Kannon’s compassion and
his accommodation to the needs of a situation. Kannon has appeared
to the old man to teach him about human transience and the futility
of earthly pleasures. This goal is accomplished, because, as the
monk’s lover, Kannon has become fully integrated into his life.
Guth (1987) has argued that the homoerotic
appreciation of beautiful young acolytes also came to influence
the way these bodhisattvas were depicted in statues and paintings,
there being an increasing trend which represented Kannon, Ma~nju'srii,
Jizoo as well as historical personages such as Kuukai and Shootoku
Taishi (an imperial prince closely connected with the introduction
of Buddhism to Japan) as ‘divine boys’, closely modelled
on the young and beautiful acolytes resident in the monasteries.
Japanese Buddhism responded to the
homoerotic environment created by a large number of monks living
together with youths and boys in a very different way to Christianity
which tended to respond to expressions of homoeroticism within monastic
communities with vehement paranoia, characterising sodomy as the
worst of sexual sins, even worse than incest. Consider, for
example, the tone of this passage from Peter Damian’s Book
of Gomorrah, written in 1049:
In our region a certain abominable and most shameful vice has
developed...The befouling cancer of sodomy is, in fact, spreading
so through the clergy or rather like a savage beast, is raging with
such shameless abandon through the flock of Christ that for many
of them it would be more salutary to be burdened with service to
the world, than, under the pretext of religion, to be enslaved so
easily under the iron rule of satanic tyranny .
Buddhism’s flexibility with regard
to sexuality, as in other aspects of human nature, derives from
the doctrine of hooben (Sanskrit upaaya) or ‘skilful
means’ wherein actions are not judged in and of themselves
but in terms of their motivation and outcome. Hence, even sexual
attraction, which in early Buddhism is considered a defilement,
can be used as a means to communicate the Buddhist truth or Dharma.
Given Buddhism’s prioritisation of intention and consequence
over the act itself it was possible for monks (for whom sexual engagement
with women was forbidden) to justify (or perhaps rationalize) their
sexual engagement with youths in terms of creating a deeper or more
lasting spiritual bond.
Other than acolytes in training to
be monks, there were many other young boys in Buddhist monasteries
because they served as schools for the children of the elite. Frederic
comments that: ‘These children were cherished by the monks
and priests, to whom they served as pages. Their clothes were sumptuous,
they had their eyebrows shaved and were made up like women. They
were the pride of the monasteries which often boasted of possessing
the prettiest and most talented pages in the district’. However, homoerotically admiring a beautiful
page boy from a distance is rather different from taking him off
to one’s bedroom. To what extent, then, did the ‘homoerotic’
atmosphere I have suggested existed in male monastic environments
actually result in homosexual behaviour? Leupp reads the very
large number of references in literary and artistic sources which
depict actual sexual relations between monks and acolytes as reflecting
their widespread practice. As evidence, he cites a vow containing
five resolutions, which was made in 1237 at the Todaiji temple in
Nara by a 36-year-old monk:
Item: I will remain secluded at Kasaki Temple until reaching
Item: Having already fucked ninety-five males, I will not behave
wantonly with more than one hundred.
Item: I will not keep and cherish any boys except Ryuo-Maru.
Item: I will not keep older boys in my own bedroom.
Item: Among the older and middle boys, I will not keep and cherish
any as their nenja [adult role in pederastic relationship].
Unfortunately, Leupp does not contextualise
the vow or discuss it in relation to other vows kept on record by
the temple. However, even if exceptional (95 sex partners by the
age of 36 does seem quite a lot, especially for a monk), the tone
of the vow seems to be one of moderation rather than renunciation.
For example, the monk still allows himself five more lovers (before
reaching number 100) and this is in addition to the relationship
which he still maintains with Ryuo-Maru. He also adds a rider after
the vow: it applies to this life only and not to the next!
The famous Chigo no sooshi or
Acolyte scroll is also often cited in this context.
This is a series of five tales with illustrations produced some
time in the fourteenth century and kept in the Shingon Daigo-ji
temple. It depicts in graphic detail how a young acolyte had a
servant prepare his bottom with various unguents and lubricants
so as to assist his aged abbot in achieving penetration. I have
seen a (censored) modern reproduction of the whole of this scroll
in the British Library with a translation into modern Japanese and
it seems to me more the product of a pornographic imagination than
a description of an actual occurrence. At one stage, the servant
becomes so excited by his job that he pleads with the acolyte to
let him first have a go; a request to which the acolyte graciously
agrees. It is unlikely that in a society like Japan, which is fiercely
aware of status differentials, that a higher status man would allow
himself to be penetrated by a man of lower status in such a manner.
However, this scroll is preserved by a Buddhist institution as a
‘national treasure’ and I find it unlikely that the Vatican
would find a place for a similar work in its vaults. This suggests
that sex did not occupy the same place in the mind scape of Japanese
Buddhists as it did in Christian consciousness throughout the west.
The result was a different kind of interiority, one which did not
judge actions as inherently right or wrong but insisted, instead,
upon their situationality and intentionality. This cultural gap
is clearly illustrated by the many encounters in the sixteenth century
recorded between Jesuit missionaries and Japanese monks who were
criticised for their addiction to the ‘unmentionable vice’.
A sexual ethic which demonized homosexuality as evil and depraved
per se was not intelligible in the terms available to Japanese
of the premodern period; as Faure comments ‘[homosexuality]
was not an object of social reprobation and repression as in Europe,
where it had been strongly condemned by the Church since Aquinas
and was punishable at the stake’.
The lighthearted manner in which sexual
infractions of the Vinaya were treated by some monks is evident
in the surviving diaries of priests, the most famous of which, translated
into English as Essays in Idleness is Kenkoo’s Tsurezuregusa,
written in the fourteenth century. Kenkoo routinely describes priestly
goings on: partying, drunkenness, pursuit of boys and women, without
any moral evaluation. He does not have a moralistic agenda which
utilises these stories to bring the protagonists to a bad end and
they stand in stark contrast to the French medieval fabliaux tales
about monastic sexual license which usually results in the priests
being horribly castrated. Rather, he treats the priestly
misbehaviour somewhat humorously, as in the story of ‘The Acolyte
Here, ‘a ravishing acolyte’ is invited out by a group
of priests on a picnic. Intending to impress him with their magical
powers, they hide a basket of food in the forest which they will
then pretend to conjure up. Unfortunately, a peasant watches the
priests bury the food and steals the hamper. Upon their return,
the priests, searching for the food in vain ‘presently fell
to quarrelling most unpleasantly, and returned in a rage to the
temple’. Kenkoo’s comment on this incident is simply
that ‘any excessively ingenious scheme is sure to end in a
Although the pursuit of beautiful youths
may have been a common pastime for some monks in medieval Japan,
the love of boys was also given a more serious metaphysical significance
in some texts. The Buddhist-inspired text which provides the most
developed metaphysical explanation for male-male love is the seventeenth-century
Shin’yuuki or Record of heartfelt friends.
Written as a catechism in which a master replies to an acolyte’s
questions regarding ‘the way of youths,’ the basic argument
of this text is that a youth’s beauty is given metaphysical
significance when he responds to the love his beauty occassions
in an adult man. Unlike in Christianity, where such lust would
have been understood as a Satanic prompting, in Japan at this time,
that an older man should fall in love with a younger was understood
to be due to a positive karmic bond between the two. The key concept
here is nasake, or ‘sympathy,’ an important term
in Japanese ethics as well as aesthetics. A youth who recognizes
the sincerity of an older man’s feelings and who, out of sympathy,
responds to him irrespective of the man’s status or of any
benefit he might expect to gain from the liaison, is considered
exemplary. The master argues that satisfaction of desire is necessary
for emotional health and that the problems experienced by giving
in to love are less severe than those which arise through resisting
it. This text illustrates the kind of pragmatism evident in other
Japanese texts dealing with love between men. It assumes that in
homosocial environments older men will be attracted to younger men
and that to deny or resist this attraction is futile.
However, it must be remembered that
the kind of homoerotic liaisons this text recommends take place
in very specific circumstances between an adult man and an adolescent
youth in the few years before he reaches manhood. Upon coming of
age, any sexual element to the relationship is let go and the bond
continues as a close spiritual friendship which is considered to
continue beyond the confines of the present life. The metaphysical
meaning of the relationship lies in both participants’ awareness
of the temporality of the affair. Since the youth’s beauty
lasts only a few years before fading for ever, it is considered
vain to establish a relationship based only upon physical attraction.
Yet, the role in which physical attraction plays in cementing the
bond between the two friends is not denied; it is, in fact, considered
a perfectly natural occurrence. Hence, Faure is right in pointing
out that sexual relationships between monk and acolyte were not
simply about ‘sex’ but constituted a ‘discourse,’
as he comments: ‘It is in Japanese Buddhism that male love
became most visible and came to designate…an ideal of man (and
not simply a type of act)’. This is very close to what Foucault,
in reference to similar same-sex transgenerational relationships
in ancient Greece, terms ‘technologies of the self’ (techniques
de soi) which are
Those voluntary and deliberate practices according to which
men not only set themselves rules of conduct but also seek to transform
themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to
make their life into a work of art [une oeuvre] that carries
certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria’.
At an ideological or aesthetic level,
then, the relationship between monk and acolyte was subject to a
code of conduct or even an ascesis which resists a reading of these
relationship as simply (homo)sexual.
As pointed out above, many sons of
the samurai were educated in Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist paradigms
of intergenerational friendships, often sexual in nature, influenced
male-male relations in the homosocial world of the samurai more
generally. This was especially true in the Tokugawa period (1600-1857)
when the samurai became concentrated in great castle towns like
Edo (present-day Tokyo) where there were comparatively few women.
That there was a ‘positive moral value attached to male-male
love relationships among the samurai during this period’ is clear from the
large amount of literature dealing with these relationships. Collections
of short stories such as Ihara Saikaku’s Nanshoku ookagami
(Great mirror of manly love), collections of
verse and stories like Kitamura Kigin’s Iwatsutsuji
(Wild azeleas) and ethical guidebooks
for the proper conduct of male love such as Shin’yuuki
(Record of heartfelt friends)
and Hagakure (In the shade of leaves),
all give a clear picture of the practice of male love as it was
Similar to the traditional formulation
of male-male love in the monasteries where a young acolyte was loved
by his preceptor, the romantic picture of male love given in these
texts idealizes the love between a youth, termed wakashu
(a boy prior to his coming-of-age-ceremony who still has unshaven
forelocks) and an older lover or nenja (literally ‘he
who remembers or thinks’ [about his lover]). The boys are
represented as beautiful, graceful and charming whereas the older
lovers are fierce, loyal and courageous. The sexual aspect of the
relationships is downplayed. Rather, the educational and nurturing
aspects of the relationship are highlighted. Schalow comments ‘They
were not primarily sexual relationships but included education,
social backing and emotional support. Together they vowed to uphold
samurai ideals. Samurai status was thus strengthened by a well-chosen
match’. Same-sex love
between samurai adults and youths was similar to that between monks
and acolytes in that the sexual aspect of the relationship was considered
to be a temporary phase in an on-going lifetime friendship (indeed,
the attraction between two lovers in the present life was often
understood to derive from the karmic effect of a past-life connection).
These relationships were not clandestine but openly acknowledged
and subject to a strict code of practice. Unlike in ancient Greece,
which also supported homoerotic friendships between older and younger
men, the sexual aspect of these friendships could be alluded to
and did not bring shame upon the younger (sexually passive) partner
so long as such relations came to an end with his coming of age.
in Japanese Buddhism
So far, Japanese Buddhism has been discussed
in terms of the leniency with which it dealt with the sexual activities
of men. No similar literary tradition exists which details the
development of homoerotic friendships between women in Buddhist
convents. Unfortunately, despite the extraordinary literary output
of aristocratic women in the tenth century, the ascendancy of a
male samurai elite from the thirteenth century means that from then
on, to a large extent, ‘women’ exist in the Japanese literary
tradition only as they are scripted by male authors and it is impossible
to reconstruct a history of female friendship from the material
currently available. Rather than working against the Neo-Confucian
ideology professed by the new samurai rulers which worked to reduce
women to the status of vassals in their own homes (although, from
the seventeenth century, women in the ascendant merchant class fared
somewhat better), certain Buddhist ideas seem to have contributed
to the negative way in which women and female sexuality were viewed
in Japan. Unlike Shinto, Buddhism was disinterested in procreation
as a social good, and did not validate women as mothers. Also,
through the doctrine of karma a rationale was provided for earlier
nativist prejudices against pollution caused by contact with blood
in menstruation and childbirth.
The Japanese feminist Minamoto Junko
(1993) has been a vocal critic of Buddhist attitudes to women.
However, her criticisms of Buddhism are rather polemical and do
not do justice to the complexities of the interrelationship between
certain ideas which have a long history within the Buddhist Canon
and the different social environments within which they were communicated.
For instance, she claims that there is a ‘tradition of the
denial of sexuality within Buddhism’ which resulted, among male practitioners, not only
in a fear of ‘eros’ but also in contempt for women. She
states that ‘Sakyamuni completely rejected sexuality (i.e.,
Her evidence for this position is a number of Pali text where the
Buddha speaks of the ‘defilement’ of women’s bodies
which are ‘filled with urine and excrement.’ Minamoto
fails to consider that these statements are not doctrinal definitions
of women’s essential nature but rather contemplative exercises
whose purpose is soteriological; they are designed to help men work
against the tendency to view the female form as an object for sexual
gratification. Needless to say, in an audience addressing women,
the Buddha would have stressed the ‘defiled’ nature of
the male body in order to loosen the bonds of erotic attachment
that many women feel for the male form. Also, surprisingly for
a writer from a society influenced by Mahaayaana Buddhism, Minamoto
does not mention female figures such as Kannon whose worship was
central to popular religious practice among the common people.
Running throughout Minamoto’s criticism of Japanese Buddhism
is the idea that ‘sexuality’ (a concept which is never
subjected to interrogation) is a fundamental and necessary part
of human existence and that to be fully human, one must be sexually
active so as to ‘understand the pain and the pleasure in human
In failing to bring this assumption into question, Minamoto perpetuates
a heteronormative understanding of ‘sexuality’ which ties
sex, particularly for women, to reproduction.
However, it is fair to say that the
place of women in Buddhism is problematic and has only recently
begun to be theorised. Although Buddhist texts are often regarded
as creations of a male monastic elite, thus enshrining male perspectives
the tradition is vast and contains both positive and negative representations
of women and their potential for spiritual advancement. Sponberg
supports this reading in arguing that the Buddhist attitude to women
is not ‘ambivalent’ but ‘multivocal’.
In Japan, it was the case that a general movement toward increasingly
rigid social hierarchisation saw women gradually subordinated to
men in all social contexts. This, however, was a symptom of the
increasing ascendancy of Neo-Confucian discourses deployed by the
samurai military caste which often resulted in discourses disparaging
women and urging men to be wary in their contact with them (thus
reduplicating in the wider society both the homosocial and the homoerotic
environment of the monasteries). In this social context seemingly
misogynist elements in the Buddhist tradition tended to be highlighted
and more egalitarian positions overlooked. As Faure mentions ‘In
a strictly hierarchical society in which women occupied the lowest
level, homosexuality encouraged misogyny, and conversely’. In response to
the lowering of women’s status, seemingly misogynist elements
within the Buddhist tradition were given increased emphasis and
were used to justify and maintain the status quo. One text used
to justify the lower status of women, the Ketsubon kyoo (Bloodbowl
sutra), although its origins are obscure, seems to be an elaboration
of Shinto anxieties about pollution expressed in a Buddhist context.
The sutra argues that women are evil because their menstrual blood
has polluted both earth and water making these elements impure.
It continues ‘[s]ince women, by nature, soil the Gods and Buddhas,
they will all fall into the Blood Pond Hell after they die’. Women’s natural ‘defilement’ was
therefore commonly used in apologia for homosexual sex, as in the
Denbu monogatari (Tale of a boor), which, as Faure
points out, is more about ‘the merits and demerits of women’
than it is about the advantages of male same-sex love.
The indigenous understanding of women
as polluted because of their role in childbirth does not seem to
have been resisted by Buddhist teachers in Japan in any systematic
way. Indeed, Japan’s more established Buddhist sects, such
as Tendai and Shingon, reinforced the idea that women were polluting
by banning them from their sites of worship (this was known as the
‘prohibition of women’ or nyonin kinsei). Reformist
Buddhist sects such as the Nichiren schools and the Joodo Shu, however,
actively welcomed women as practitioners and Hoonen (1132-1212)
went so far as to criticise the established sects for forbidding
women access to their most sacred sites. Individual Zen teachers,
too, perhaps upholding the tradition of iconoclasm which characterises
the school, also sometimes spoke out against the conventional views
on the inferiority of women. Doogen (1200-1253), for instance,
often criticised the view that any male practitioner of the dharma
was of higher status than all women practitioners. In his sermon,
which is featured in his famous collection, the Shooboogenzoo,
he mentions a number of Enlightened women teachers in the Ch’an
tradition of China, and says that a male disciple who is lucky enough
to encounter such a teacher should bow to her in homage, for it
is ‘like finding drinking water when you are thirsty’. Doogen further
attacks the idea of the ‘inferiority’ of women on doctrinal
What demerit is there in femaleness? What merit is there in
maleness? There are bad men and good women. If you wish to hear
the Dharma and put an end to pain and turmoil, forget about such
things as male and female. As long as delusions have not yet been
eliminated, neither men nor women have eliminated them; when they
are all eliminated and true reality is experienced, there is no
distinction of male and female.
A more controversial position was taken
by the Zen monk Ikkyuu (1394 - 1481) who, although at one time the
abbot of an influential temple, stripped himself of the regulations
that separated the monk from lay followers and celebrated his involvement
with women in the brothel world in a series of poems such as:
A beautiful woman, cloud rain, love’s deep river.
Up in the pavilion, the pavilion girl and the old monk sing.
I find inspiration in embraces and kisses;
I don’t feel at all that I’m casting my body into
Ikkyuu actually saw his life lived
in the world sharing common people’s experiences as a more
authentic expression of the Mahaayaana path than that lived by monks
dressed in rich brocades, ‘fussing’ over interpretation
of the scriptures in monasteries. Sex with women (in one poem he
speaks of being ‘bored with the love of boys’) was an
important part of Ikkyuu’s spiritual practice. Arntzen comments
that ‘sex as the principle “desire” was a kind of
touchstone for his realization of the dynamic concept of non-duality
that pivots upon the essential unity of the realm of desire and
the realm of enlightenment’. Here is a clear example of the extremes to which
the antinomian tendencies of the Mahaayaana could go: if even sex
with boys could be a ‘skilful means’, so too could sex
However, the idiosyncratic approach
of monks like Ikkyuu who valued interaction (even sexual interaction)
with women, was marginal in Japan. More common were the views reproduced
in sermon booklets written specifically for female audiences, all
of which stressed the extreme problems women faced in gaining Enlightenment
because of their ‘defiled’ nature. Likewise, in Pure
Land Buddhism, which like Zen, reached its furthest doctrinal developments
in Japan, soteriologically speaking women disappear as all beings
reborn into the Pure Land are reborn as male. This led to the common
practice in Japan of giving recently deceased women new male names
in the expectation that they were to be reborn as male in the Pure
The generally low position of women
in Japanese society and the presence of nativist, Buddhist and Confucian
discourses all linking them to sex and pollution meant that ‘there
was never a trace in Japan of the exalted awe and adoration accorded
to women in the European tradition of chivalry and courtly love’.
That women were held in low esteem seems to further have encouraged
the development of homoerotic traditions in the monasteries where
spiritual beings came increasingly to be represented as divine boys. As Faure points out ‘in as much as women
meant defilement, by rejecting women--even if for young boys--monks
thought that they were rejecting defilement’. Monks could court
chigo or young acolytes without the dangers of pollution
or childbirth, and in the absence of a discourse which defined same-sex
sexuality as effeminising, could maintain their identity and integrity
as men. By the time of increased samurai ascendancy from the thirteenth
century, there was already a well-established homoerotic tradition
in Japanese monasteries in which boys, not women, were constructed
as fitting objects for adult male desire, a tradition which was
well suited to the masculine ideals of an increasingly militaristic
society. Blomberg notes that ‘[h]omosexual relationships between
an older and a younger bushi [warrior] who were attached
to one another as knight and page, were virtually the rule in feudal
Japan’, attributing them
to the ‘very close bonds...commonly found in men’s societies
in many cultures’. Not unlike other warrior societies,
particularly ancient Greece, in Japan ‘[t]he love of women
[was] regarded as disgraceful and a sign of weakness, whereas the
love of men [was] virile and honourable’.
The history of homosexuality in Japanese
Buddhism has attracted a certain amount of academic attention in
Japan and Japanese bibliographies on the topic including both historical
texts and their more recent commentaries are immense. I know of no other
society which has preserved such an extensive historical record
of love between men. Modern western schema which seek to divide
individuals into ‘homosexuals’ and ‘heterosexuals’
seem inapplicable to premodern Japan where an adult man was considered
as likely to fall for the charms of an adolescent youth as he was
a young woman and where a youth was encouraged to respond ‘sympathetically’
to the desire his beauty occasioned in an older man. This does
not mean, of course, that the modern division of human sexuality
into stark ‘homo’ or ‘hetero’ options is somehow
false; it is simply a different construction, one which cannot be
dissolved simply by pointing out how other societies have conceived
of ‘sexuality’ in very different ways. This is what Foucault
was suggesting when he argued that ‘it is precisely the idea
of sex in itself that we cannot accept without examination;’
i.e., the idea that there is some irreducible essence of ‘sex’
which exists inside the body. This means that with regard
to sexual behaviour, we should be very cautious about deploying
such terms as ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ because
how we see ‘nature’ is actually filtered through assumptions
embedded in culture.
Japanese culture seems to have held
assumptions about sexuality which differ in important ways from
those characteristic of Anglo-American societies since the close
of the nineteenth century. I have argued that these Japanese expressions
of homosexuality were culturally determined by a variety of ‘discourses’.
Firstly, the Buddhist discourse which separated sex from procreation
and secondly, Nativist, Buddhist and Neo-Confucian discourses which
identified women as ‘polluting’ and a potential threat
to men. Yet, although women occupied a similarly disadvantaged
position within western Christian discourse, no Christian culture
developed socially validated and institutionalised homosexual relationships
between men. What then, was different about Japan that enabled
these relationships to thrive? Japanese misogyny alone cannot be
a sufficient explanation, for within Christianity ‘women’
were subjected to a barrage of insults and recriminations quite
as unyielding as anything that Confucianism produced.
To a certain extent, the influence
of Buddhism seems clear. As Faure comments ‘Certain sexual
habits considered “against nature” by the Christians may
have been encouraged by the antinomian teachings of Mahayana’. Despite painstaking regulations
in the Vinaya against any kind of sexual activity on the part of
monks, including many forbidding homosexual encounters, Buddhism
in Japan developed a very lax attitude towards sexual expression
on the part of monks, which has resulted in the curious anomaly
that because most monks now marry (and must do so for succession
to temple property follows family line),
it is only Japanese nuns who live a celibate lifestyle today.
Yet even the flexibility of Mahaayaana
ethics in which actions which may seem unethical can be understood
as ‘skilful means’ cannot fully account for the flourishing
of homosexual relationships within Japanese culture, for similar
expressions of male desire did not proliferate to the same extent
in China or in Tibet where Mahaayaana influence was equally as strong.
Nor can Shinto’s sex-positive teachings be used to explain
the development of forms of physical love between men, for Shinto
essentially valorized procreative sex as a symbol of cosmic
fertility: an ideology flatly opposed by Buddhism. My speculation
is that Buddhism’s disinterest in procreation as a spiritually
significant act coupled with a social discourse which not only understood
women to be inferior to men but also polluted and potentially polluting,
meant that boys, not women became the bearer of the ‘feminine’
archetype. In a belief system in which the self is ultimately empty
and is caught up in a round of births where gender identity, like
any other ‘essential’ feature, is transient and illusory,
the blurring of gender boundaries is not likely to become a major
transgression, a heresy or a sin. The history of homoeroticism
in Japanese Buddhism is interesting because it shows that ‘gender’
like ‘sexuality’ is not a fixed attribute of biological
bodies. Rather, both sex and gender are complex cultural performances
which are acted out with the body as opposed to ‘biological’
realities which emerge from within it.
To suggest what interest or implications
the history of homosexuality in Japanese Buddhism should hold for
Buddhist practitioners in the modern west is to enter into the realm
of speculation but I would like to offer a few ideas derived from
my research into Japanese history and gender theory as well as five
years of living in Japan. When compared with many people in modern
Japan, the topic of homosexuality does seem particularly troubling
for westerners. The reasons are complex, but put simply, for over
a thousand years homosexual acts between men were considered to
be among the most sinful, according to Saint Aquinas, even worse
than mother-son incest (which at least had procreative potential--the
only excuse for sex). In the nineteenth century the sinful/virtuous
paradigm for categorising sexual acts was overturned by the medical
notion of sick/healthy and later the psychological characterisation
of desire as perverse/normal. Homosexuality in the west has always
been placed on the negative side of these binaries. Although the
discourse attempting to ‘explain’ homosexuality has recently
been transformed, the fundamental notion that it is ‘problematic’
remains. Modern western homophobia, which ‘others’ same-sex
desire onto a small group of ‘homosexuals’ and asserts
that for the majority of ‘heterosexuals’ homoeroticism
is a constitutional impossibility, is the product of a comparatively
recent change in the way sexuality has been configured in the west. Likewise, the
idea that certain sexual acts or desires are ‘against nature’
is only intelligible in a system where ‘nature’ has been
established according to a designer-realist deity’s blue-print
Hence, in our cultural context where
homosexual desire has for centuries been considered sinful, unnatural
and a great evil, the experience of homoerotic desire can be very
traumatic for some individuals and severely limit the potential
for same-sex friendship. The Danish sociologist Henning Bech, for
instance, writes of the anxiety which often accompanies developing
intimacy between male friends:
The more one has to assure oneself that one’s relationship
with another man is not homosexual, the more conscious one becomes
that it might be, and the more necessary it becomes to protect oneself
against it. The result is that friendship gradually becomes impossible.
The famous Japanese psychologist, Doi
Takeo, has commented on the anxieties many westerners (his examples
are drawn from American society) have in developing same-sex intimacy.
Doi argues that a major difference between western and Japanese
society is that in the west, it is relationships between men and
women which are most culturally valued, whereas in Japan it is relationships
between men and between women which are emphasised. He argues that
western men, in particular, have to prove themselves as men
through their ability to court and interact with women. Relationships
with other men are, on the other hand, fraught with anxiety because
displaying too much intimacy with another man invites suspicion
of homosexuality. He therefore identifies western homophobia as
a limiting factor stopping men establishing intimate bonds with
other men. Doi argues that ‘homosexual
feelings’ however, are more prevalent in Japan. He says that
he doesn’t mean homosexuality in the ‘narrow sense’
but in the case where ‘emotional links between members
of the same sex take priority over those with the opposite sex’. These strong emotional bonds
are not so much prevalent among friends (which suggests an equality
of relationship) but superiors/inferiors. He mentions teacher and
pupil, senior and junior members of organisations, and even parents
and children of the same sex. Doi stresses that these desires are
quite normal and may continue to be the most important emotional
attachments in a person’s life, even after marriage. The continuing
importance in Japan of vertical homosocial bonds between members
of the same sex seems to be a pale reflection in modern times of
the common pattern of erotic friendship between junior and senior
men which took place throughout much of Japan’s history and
is related to socialisation patterns in Japanese society which remain
much more sex-segregated than those in the west.
I found Doi’s comments interesting
as both western feminists
and gender theorists alike have argued that the ‘death’
of male friendship in the modern era is closely linked with homophobia.
As Doi argues, the prioritisation of opposite-sex relationships
and the development of what Japanese feminist Ueno Chizuko has called
the western ‘couple culture’ has resulted in the modern
west in the prioritisation of the marital relationship and the consequent
eclipse of close friendships between men (and to a lesser extent,
between women). Michel Foucault, too, argues that we live in a
world in which relationships have become ‘impoverished’
because of the over-valuation of family relationships:
We live in a relational world that institutions have considerably
impoverished. Society and the institutions which frame it have
limited the possibility of relationships because a rich relational
world would be very complex to manage...In effect, we live in a
legal, social and institutional world where the only relations possible
are extremely few, extremely simplified, and extremely poor. There
is, of course, the fundamental relation of marriage, and the relations
of the family, but how many other relations should exist...
Unlike these modern theorists, however,
as Buddhists we have Buddhist traditions and approaches to draw
upon. Whatever the reasons that have led to the decline of male
(and female) friendship in the west, it is clear that as Buddhists
we are in the unfortunate position of having to reinvent spiritual
friendship in a cultural context where this form of relationship
has been lost. One of the great obstacles that we must work against
is the homophobia resulting from centuries of Christianity’s
sex-negativism. This homophobia is not only an obstacle on the
psychological level inhibiting men’s attempts to develop close
and intimate friendships with other men (perhaps less of an issue
in women's friendships), but also on a societal level where intimate
relationships between members of the same sex are rendered suspect.
If the history of homoeroticism in the Buddhist tradition of Japan
has any relevance to our lives as western Buddhists today, it is
to give us hope that there are other ways of interacting and other
criteria for judging friendships than those currently endorsed.
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 Foucault (1990) p.152.
 I use the term ‘Anglo-American’
to refer to patterns of (homo)sexuality which have characterised
English-speaking Anglo-Saxon societies since the end of the nineteenth
century. These differ in many ways from other ‘western’
societies such as those of southern Europe or Latin America.
For an overview of these differences see the work of anthropologist
Gilbert Herdt, particularly his Same Sex, Different Cultures:
Gays and Lesbians across Cultures, Boulder: Westview Press,
 Cited in Harootunian (1988) p.298.
 Czaja, (1974) p.177; see also
 In popular culture, Monjushiri became
known as the patron saint of male homosexual love because of the
unfortunate resemblance of the latter part of his name to the
Japanese word for ‘arse’ (shiri).
 Brundage (1987) p.399.
 Cited in Leysler (1995) p.3. The
various Christian responses to homosexuality are, in fact, far
more nuanced than I suggest here. Recent work by John Boswell:
Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, Chicago:
Chicago University Press, 1980; Same-Sex Unions in Premodern
Europe, New York: Vintage, 1995; and by Mark Johnson, The
Invention of Sodomy in the Christian Tradition, Chicago: Chicago
University Press, 1998, shows that Christian theologians adopted
a variety of positions on same-sex love and that these only became
universally negative after the various ‘heresy panics’
following on from the twelfth century.
 Frederic (1972) p.37-8.
 See Watanabe & Iwata (1989) p.41.
 Transl. Donald Keene (1981).
 Translated and discussed by Schalow
in Leyland (1998).
 Foucault (1984) p.10-11.
 Ikegami (1995) p.209.
 See Schalow (1990) for an English
 See Miller (1996) for an English
translation by Schalow.
 See Schalow’s translation in
 See Wilson (1979) for an English
 In this essay I am describing the
idealised relationships that existed between older and
younger men as they were defined in a few key texts. Japanese
popular culture, however, had a very different understanding of
them: popular texts often make fun of Buddhist monks and the extraordinary
lengths they went to in their pursuit of beautiful boys. Many
of the traditional Japanese jokes collected by Levy (1973) are
at the expense of Buddhist priests. Take this one for example:
‘A monk falls from a tree while collecting firewood and pierces
his rectum on a stump. His acolyte replies “Isn’t that
your karma?’” However, the tone of these popular jokes
and tales is generally lighthearted. After all, many townsmen,
too, were known to have lost all their sense (and sometimes possessions)
in pursuit of beautiful young kabuki actors. A wide selection
of such stories can be found in Ihara Saikaku’s Nanshoku
ookagami (Great mirror of manly love; translated by Schalow
 Schalow (1990) p.27.
 Minamoto (1993) p.87.
 Sponberg (1992) p.3-4.
 Cited in Minamoto (1993) p.95.
 See Leupp (1995) for an English translation.
 Levering (1998) p.78.
 It is significant, as Levering (1998,
p.78) points out, that large sections of the Raihaitokuzui
in which Doogen further criticises conventional views held about
women seem to have been omitted from editions of this text which
circulated before the eighteenth century.
 Cited in Levering (1998) p.84.
 Cited in Levering (1982) p.31.
 Cited in Arntzen (1986) p.117.
 Blomberg (1974) p.106.
 Blomberg (1974) p.98.
 Blomberg (1976) p.100.
 For a listing of Japanese sources
consult Leupp’s (1995) bibliography. Despite the immense number
of (particularly Tokugawa-period) Japanese works which take male-male
love as their main theme or feature it incidentally, modern Japanese
society shows little awareness of this cultural inheritance and
modern conceptualisations of ‘sexuality’ approximate in
many ways to those prevalent in Anglo-American societies. For a
discussion of homosexuality in modern Japan see Mark McLelland:
Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social
Realities, Richmond: Curzon Press, 2000; or Mark McLelland:
‘Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan’,
in Intersections issue 3: available on the Net at: http://wwwsshe.murdoch.edu.au/intersections
 In 1872, the Meiji government issued
a proclamation allowing Buddhist monks to marry but this act basically
gave official sanction to the practice of marriage by Buddhist
monks which was already widespread. Buddhist temples in local
districts are usually passed on from father to son and run much
like a family business with much of their income deriving from
funeral and memorial ceremonies. Kim (1995, p.115) mentions that
this state of affairs often causes resentment among celibate nuns
who, when assisting in ceremonies, are often given instructions
by the monk’s wife.
 There is now an immense literature
examining the transformations in the way human sexual life has
been conceived both over time and across cultures. Michel Foucault’s
History of Sexuality volume 1, London: Penguin, 1991, is
the classic text outlining the development of a realm of experience
now familiar to us as ‘sexuality’ in the nineteenth
century. A good overview of diverse ‘homosexualities’
is given by David Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
 Doi (1985) p.134-45.
 See for instance Sedgwick (1990).
 Cited in Halperin (1995) p.81-2.