Much like the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, the normalization of homosexuality is was widespread through Japanese history. Specifically, this was embodied in the form of pederastic love between older men, like monks and samurai and chigo and wakashu, who were boys, aged ten to nineteen. This became a tradition that lasted roughly a thousand years in Japan. This information comes from reviews of ancient literature by Watanabe and Iwata (1989) in their book The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality. While Samurai played a large part in the construction of this tradition, their role only lasted a short time compared to the thousand years of tradtion.
The Origins of Homosexuality in Japan:
More of a legend than actual historical fact, the origins of the homosexual nature of the Japanese started with a monk named Kukai, or Kobo Daishi. The legend goes that he returned from China around 806 AD, spreading to other monks what was said to be a Chinese custom. From monks it spread to the common people of Japan. Of course, homosexuality wasn’t “introduced” to Japan, it is just associated with the name Kukai.
Kukai is not the only famous name in this story. Another story tells of Master Saicho. Both Kukai and Saicho traveled to china and brought back true Buddhist teachings, however legend has it that Saicho came into contact with the representation of a god, who came in the form of a young boy. This boy introduced himself as the “Father of the Tendai teachings” (Watanabe and Iwata 1989:38). This is a representation of the tradition that “the gods appear incarnate in the form of angelic boys” (Watanabe and Iwata 1989:38). The legend of Saicho meeting this child in turn gave the spiritual basis in Tendai and Buddhist schools for homosexuality.
The word Chigo means “young boy.” The following centuries after the supposed time that Saicho met the angelic boy it became the custom for “aristocrats to enter their sons temporarily in the monasteries… and it was natural that these well brought-up young boys, called chigo, should be the object of sexual love” (Watanabe and Iwata 1989:38). This was a contribution to the development of homosexual love. Throughout the centuries there are many collections of literature, written by monks about their love for a chigo. As for the types of love between a chigo and his master “within the walls of a monastery, it was a matter of anal intercourse exclusively” (Watanabe and Iwata 1989:119).
Around the time of the 16th century, at the height of samurai, the term changed from chigo to wakashu, or shudo, which instead of “young boy” meant “young man.” With this change of terms so did the suitable age for which a boy can be loved. For the chigo it was between ten and seventeen years old, and for the shudo it was between thirteen and nineteen years old. Watanabe and Iwata (1989) draw a comparison to the Spartans saying that among the samurai there appeared a military type of homosexuality (47).
Many historians, according to the authors, believe that “the popularity of homosexuality was simply the consequence of supposed restrictions on the freedom of sexual relations between the sexes,” like with the vows of celibacy taken by monks (Watanabe and Iwata 1989:116). But this begs question about those who practiced shudo, were they strictly homosexual, or was it a situational thing as historians suggest? The authors Watanabe and Iwata, in their review of literatures from Japan have found that all those samurai that practiced shudo in fact were married (to women). The practice of shudo was traditional, and in many ways a right of passage. It was a common custom that the “future samarai is loved by adult men up to the age of majority; then, he loves adolescents younger than he is, and finally, a few years later, he sets up a house with a wife” (Watanabe and Iwata 1989:117).
The Decline of Shudo
As a tradition, homosexuality started to make a disappearance in Japan. This began around the time that Japan was in the middle of its voluntary seclusion. From then until now shudo went into decline because, as Watanabe and Iwata (1989) describe, of the growth of the bourgeoisie, development of capitalism and industrialized society. Many assume that it was an introduction of Christianity, while it was present, ultimately it was changing governments and the move to more modernized societies.
Watanabe, Tseneo and Jun’ichi Iwata. 1989. The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality. London. GMP Publishers.