Japan began to open its doors to the West in the 1850s, after centuries of remaining closed. In the following decade, foreigners’ “concessions” were established in port cities such as Yokohama and Kobe to cope with the new visitors. The Japanese, with their characteristic desire to extend guests every hospitality, quickly discovered that the foreigners had very different tastes in food, music, alcoholic drinks — and sex. Brothels were hastily constructed to satisfy newcomers’ lust for Japanese women, but the foreigners looked askance at the same-sex relationships with boys that had been common practice in Japan.
For many centuries, Japan’s samurai class nurtured same-sex relationships as an essential part of the lord-retainer bond, and relationships such as these were celebrated in the arts. But in the eyes of the West, a “civilized nation” should regard same-sex relationships as abhorrent. Desperate to be regarded as the equal of Western nations, Japan began to radically reform its sexual attitudes when the nation opened up during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Not only was male-male sex made illegal for several years in the 1870s, but the language of sex itself was rewritten: The word “nanshoku” (erotic relations between men) was gradually replaced with “doseiai,” a translation of the English term “homosexuality,” making the idea of same-sex relationships seem foreign.
But it was not just homosexuality that was redefined in the Meiji Era; Japan was in the throes of a social, industrial and sexual revolution. The nation absorbed the theories of Western sexologists and evolutionists, and debates raged about the fate of indentured prostitutes and the social impact of the booming brothel industry.
For a new wave of feminist writers such as Akiko Yosano and Raicho Hiratsuka, the Western concept of romantic love (renai) — which made love the basis of sex and marriage — had the potential to liberate women from their roles as either prostitutes, virginal girls or subservient wives.
Yosano and Hiratsuka lived unconventionally: Hiratsuka in particular scandalized society with an attempted love suicide, before setting up a magazine promoting women’s rights and having children out of wedlock with a young lover.
As the Meiji Era continued, boundaries between the world of the pleasure quarters and the prescribed sphere of domestic life blurred. In Japan’s growing cities, every young woman had the potential to mobilize her sexuality, and these changing mores were closely observed by a brilliant new generation of writers.
At the beginning of Natsume Soseki’s 1908 novel, “Sanshiro,” a young student encounters a woman aboard a train and inadvertently ends up spending a night at an inn with her. Mistaken by the inn-keeper as a couple, they are assigned a single room and the woman nonchalantly gets into bed with the student. Being from the socially conservative provinces, he is flustered how to deal with this situation, comically using towels to create a boundary down the middle of the futon — a recreation of the premodern boundaries that once existed around eroticism in Japan.
In novels such as “Gubijinso” (“The Poppy”) and “Sanshiro” Soseki depicted young Japanese women who were the equivalent of Western sirens, variously compared by Soseki to Cleopatra and the “stunners” portrayed in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The problem was that, while women could now openly attract those they desired with their eroticism, they were still bound by repressive social constraints, forced to quickly marry for the sake of economic and social status.
There were other imbalances, too. For those living in Japan before 1945, adultery was, as it had been in the Edo Period (1604-1868), a criminal offense — married men, however, were not punished for visiting courtesans. This meant that the risks involved in allowing oneself to fall in love with a married woman in particular were considerable. This theme is explored in subsequent Soseki novels, “Sorekara” (“And Then”), “Mon” (“The Gate”) and “Kojin” (“The Wayfarer”).
Toward the end of the Meiji Era, other writers began to make sexuality a central theme in their work. Junichiro Tanizaki explored the theme of sensuality and erotic obsession in “Shisei” (“The Tattooer”) and “Chijin no Ai” (“Naomi”), first published in 1924. In “The Tattooer” — hinting at sadomasochistic pleasure and male fear of female empowerment — the tattooer attempts to use a beautiful girl as a blank canvas, but discovers she becomes strengthened and transformed by the tattooing of a huge spider on her back.
Tanizaki’s story represented the start of a new literary trend in the Taisho Era (1912-25): the rise of the hentai (pervert) with frustrated sexual desires and erotic, sadistic obsessions. These aberrant desires were seen by some as a result of the prescriptive sexual norms of early 20th-century Japan.
The master of this genre was the fantasy and detective author Edogawa Rampo, who had a keen interest in the history of homosexuality in Japan. In the 1920s, Rampo penned a string of brilliant short stories that hinted at the oppressive constraints of Japanese society and its deleterious effects on the psyche, leading to the development of sadomasochistic desires.
In his 1925 story “The Human Chair,” Rampo depicts a character hiding within an armchair, while one person after another literally sits upon him. The free-wheeling sexuality of the main character in Ihara Saikaku’s “Life of an Amorous Man” (1682) had now — in modern, Westernizing Japan — been transformed into a character bizarrely hiding within a European cultural artifact. He does not openly embrace partners, but surreptitiously gropes and spies on them.
The theme was expanded in a story from the same year, “The Stalker in the Attic,” in which the “pervert” protagonist, nursing latent sadomasochistic desires, takes to an attic to spy on, and finally murder, another occupant of the building. In Rampo’s hands, the frenzied character in the attic becomes a symbol of a repressed part of Japan’s psyche.
But Rampo’s greatest satirical creation would be “The Caterpillar” (1929), which was turned into a notable film in 2011 by Koji Wakamatsu. The story depicts a grotesquely wounded war veteran, who has lost all four limbs and his sense of hearing, and is kept in an annex by his sadistic wife. He writhes on the floor like a caterpillar, seething with sexual desire.
Rampo’s story was banned as unpatriotic by the Japanese government during the 1930s, but proved prophetic: at the end of World War II, Japan itself would feel truncated with the loss of its limbs — its empire. In the agony of defeat, the nation was also liberated from the government’s oppressive censorship and a new wave of authors were able to finally express long-simmering desires.
From the Meiji Era onward, and in an effort to “modernize,” Japanese people were encouraged to restrict themselves to ever-narrowing definitions of sexuality. But authors such as Hiratsuka, Soseki and Rampo were quick to note the contradiction between that modernity and Japan’s traditional expectations of gender roles — including the discarded tradition of fluid sexuality. While the nation expanded its empire abroad, its writers at home were steadily undermining the mask of “normal sexuality” that was being presented to the world.
This is the second installment in a three-part series on sexuality in Japanese literature. Damian Flanagan is the author of “Yukio Mishima” (Reaktion Books, 2014) and “The Tower of London: Tales of Victorian London” (Peter Owen, 2004).