Male-Male Desire: “Danshoku” Culture and Its Legacy in Japan

Society Culture History

From historical danshoku to today’s boys’ love, comparative culture specialist Saeki Junko examines aspects of male homosexual culture in Japan over the years.

More Sophisticated

Japan is commonly thought of as being behind other countries in social acceptance of LGBTQ people, but concerning some forms of male homosexuality, at least, historically it has shown considerable tolerance.

Male homosexual love, including sex, was known as danshoku from before the Edo period (1603–1868), and was seen as a part of the love practices of the time. In self-contained male-only groups, described as homosocial in sociology—such as Buddhist mountain temples where women were forbidden, male-centered samurai society, and kabuki troupes with only male actors—the absence of women led to homosexual love and gratification of sexual desire, with friendship and affection developing into sexual relationships. In Japan at this time, there was no discrimination or efforts to prevent such relationships due to them being considered as sexual deviancy.

In the Edo period, words like irokoi and kōshoku were used to describe love and affairs, and they were a major theme for literature, as seen in works by Ihara Saikaku, such as Kōshoku ichidai otoko (1682) (trans. by Hamada Kenji as The Life of an Amorous Man) and Kōshoku ichidai onna (1686) (trans. by Ivan Morris as The Life of an Amorous Woman). Romantic strategies and know-how were called shikidō, or “the way of love,” a term that covered homosexual as well as heterosexual affairs.

There was also the phrase shikidō futatsu, or “the two ways of love,” referring to joshoku (male-female) and danshoku (male-male) pairings. A Japanese Don Juan of the Edo period was expected to be well versed in both. Saikaku wrote extensively of both varieties, including Nanshoku ōkagami (1687) (trans. by Paul Gordon Schalow as The Great Mirror of Male Love), which focuses on danshoku (also sometimes called nanshoku).

Debates over the superiority of danshoku or joshoku were a literary theme, with writers applying their wit in expressing their opinions in the same way that they vied over the respective merits of udon and soba or cats and dogs.

In such discussions, one can see the assertion that danshoku is worthier, being more sophisticated and artistic. Rather than being considered perverse or abnormal, the aesthetic appreciation of homosexual love continued into the Edo period in Japan.

Discarded After Use

It is important to note, however, a fundamental difference between danshoku and modern male homosexuality, which is that rather being between two adult men, danshoku was typically love between an adult and an adolescent.

The boys seen as ideal partners for danshoku affairs had not yet gone through their genpuku coming-of-age ceremony, and were considered to be beautiful as girls; relationships were expected to last for just a few years while they were in their mid-teens. As vulnerable members of a society of self-centered men, the boys would often be discarded, and in extreme cases might be killed after their genpuku.

It was also usual for the adult men having affairs with these minors to ensure their line would go on by marrying women, so boys were not wanted as lifelong partners. Even in sexual relationships, the boys were basically passive. Danshoku relationships where the man was controlling and the boy was socially and sexually weaker are different from today’s homosexual relationships, in which both men aim for independence and equality and want the same kind of partnerships as heterosexual couples.

Marginalized as Abnormality

While negative aspects should not be forgotten, in the sense that male homosexual relationships were not considered abnormal, perverted, or a kind of illness, danshoku was socially accepted until the Edo period. However, from the Meiji era (1868–1912) onward, in the process of modernization, the influence of values related to Western science and guilt over homosexuality—given that men were actually punished under the law for such relationships—led to the marginalization of homosexuality as perversion or abnormality.

One of Mishima Yukio’s most famous works, the 1949 Kamen no kokuhaku (trans. by Meredith Weatherby as Confessions of a Mask) is a first-person novel painstakingly depicting the thinking of a modern homosexual Japanese man when being gay was seen as abnormal. The protagonist conceals his sexual desires and romantic feelings from those around him.

However, danshoku culture continued from the Meiji era at boys’ boarding schools, and can be seen in works like Mori Ōgai’s 1909 Uita sekusuarisu (trans. by Kazuji Ninomiya and Sanford Goldstein as Vita Sexualis) and Fukunaga Takehiko’s 1954 Kusa no hana (trans. by Royall Tyler as Flowers of Grass).

Social Intolerance

Male-male love in male-dominated or male-only societies, such as boys’ boarding schools, is not limited to Japan. It is well known that affairs between men or men and youths were a custom in ancient Greek society, while there are examples in modern Western literature and film, such as E. M. Forster’s Maurice (1971), which is set at a boys’ school, and the 1964 French film Les amitiés particulières (This Special Friendship), with a boarding school setting, centered on the love between a young boy and an older student. The relationships these works depict are similar to those in Japan.

The idea seen in danshoku that male homosexual love has a higher artistic and aesthetic value than heterosexual love is also a motif of the 1995 film Total Eclipse, portraying the affair between the great French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.

While viewing male homosexuality as inherently connected to the principles of art and aestheticism for their own sake is a key aspect of Japan’s danshoku, the phenomenon can also be seen in Western society. This is to say, danshoku is not a unique form of culture characteristic of a Far Eastern island country, but a universal male desire transcending time and geography.

In Western societies, such as in Britain until around the mid-twentieth century, sexual relationships between men were treated harshly by society and subject to legal punishment. The efforts of those targeted to speak out against social intolerance led to the eradication or lessening of oppression, such as criminalization of homosexuality and the judgement that it was abnormal.

In Japan, however, perhaps the uninhibited practice of danshoku through the Edo period led to stronger suppression and prejudice starting in the Meiji era, so that social acceptance of LGBTQ people is now comparatively behind the West.

Boys’ Love a Global Success

Recently, there is a lot of discussion in Japan about Johnny Kitagawa, the late head of the Johnny and Associates talent agency, and his sexual abuse of young stars. This kind of situation where an elderly employer ignored the autonomy of minors, desiring an unequal sexual relationship, is very similar to danshoku through the Edo period.

Negative danshoku aspects of forced one-sided relationships based on a mismatch in power, financial resources, and social position are incompatible with modern concepts of human rights. Thus, one should not overlook Kitagawa’s abuse of minors based on excuses that it is “traditional culture” or “he contributed a lot to the entertainment world.”

At the same time, in the sense that homosexual love was not seen as deviant, there is some crossover between danshoku and LGBTQ advocacy today. In recognizing the diversity of sexual desire, it appears possible to take a positive view of the history of danshoku.

Shōnen ai manga (focused on romance between boys) from the 1970s, and later boys’ love comics, as well as television dramas centered on male couples, continue to be popular with Japanese women. Can these be said to be a continuation of danshoku culture, or are they something entirely different?

It is fascinating to see the points of similarity between classic shōnen ai manga like Hagio Moto’s 1974 Tōma no shinzō (trans. by Rachel Thorn as The Heart of Thomas) and Takemiya Keiko’s Kaze to ki no uta (Poem of Wind and Trees; 1976–84) and danshoku literature. In danshoku stories depicting the love of boys working as temple pages, they typically die young, and Thomas himself chooses death, while Gilbert in Poem of Wind and Trees is killed in an accident. Thomas’s death leads the older student Julusmole to enter a seminary, and Gilbert’s former lover Serge overcomes his sense of loss to find success as a musician. The connections with religious enlightenment and art show strong danshoku tendencies.

However, when questioned, both authors said that rather than Japan’s danshoku literature, they had been influenced by Western books and films. These shōjo manga works (aimed at young female readerships)_are set at boarding schools in Germany and France, which as alluring locations for their readers help to more effectively convey the purity of the boys’ love. For those foreign readers for whom boys’ boarding schools are a more familiar presence, it may have been difficult to romanticize these manga.

Japanese manga is now hugely popular overseas, and major bookstores are sure to have a manga section. When I traveled to northern Europe, I saw BL manga on sale in a station kiosk. I imagine that it is easy for BL manga produced from the 1990s onward, with realistic depictions of proactive relationships and psychological conflict, to catch on among foreign readers.

While BL manga represent a positive inheritance from danshoku culture’s tolerant attitude toward homosexuality, their alignment with contemporary values allows them to achieve a global popularity through their acceptance in Western societies where LGBTQ rights movements have made the most progress.

Unraveling the history of danshoku culture should not be about simply reminiscing about the “good old days.” Considering its good and bad points offers hints for finding ways of accepting diverse forms of sexuality.

(Originally published in Japanese on September 5, 2023. Banner image: Illustration from the 1687 Nanshoku ōkagami, trans. by Paul Gordon Schalow as The Great Mirror of Male Love. The man at the top left lectures beautiful youths on the excellence of danshoku. Courtesy of the National Diet Library.)

gender Edo period Mishima Yukio LGBTQ sexual abuse Johnny Kitagawa