Gender & Sexual Orientation

Perhaps the most dramatic development in Japan’s sexual culture during the 19th century involved the public perception of an individual’s sex, gender and sexual orientation.

Up until the 19th century, a person’s sex—either male or female, as defined by his or her genitalia—was considered distinct from his or her gender, a more subjective, potentially varied form of self-identification based upon such factors as behavior, clothing, sexual orientation, and use of language. For this reason, third-gender groups such as wakashū—adolescent males identified by their long-sleeved furisode robes, partly shaved heads, and brightly colored caps—were distinguished from both men and women. In the various roles they assumed as Buddhist acolytes, samurai attendants, and actors on the Kabuki stage, wakashū were desired by both adult men and women. While homosexual relationships between adult men were not publicly acknowledged, trysts between adult men and wakashū, known as nanshoku (literally, “male love”), were exceedingly common.

To a large extent, the popularity of wakashū and the sexual practice of nanshoku waned after the early 18th century, but many works of 19th-century shunga indicate that they did not disappear entirely. Meanwhile, artists such as Keisai Eisen (1790–1848), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), and Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) continued to challenge traditional notions about sexual identity through depictions of male homosexuality, female transvestitism, and even hermaphroditism. By the early 20th century, institutions such as the Takarazuka Theater in Hyōgo Prefecture would become a center of lesbian culture, and public figures such as the author Mishima Yukio (1925–1970) would publicly identify themselves as gay.