More than 3,000 women and almost 900 men — that's the number of lovers the main protagonist in Ihara Saikaku's 1682 novel "Koshoku Ichidai Otoko" ("The Life of an Amorous Man") tallies up as he reminisces. Saikaku, born in Osaka in 1642, became a renowned poet who wrote about the fluid, open sexuality of Edo Period (1603-1868) pleasure quarters with a startling lack of inhibition: In the 1685 collection of stories "Koshoku Gonin Onna" ("Five Women Who Loved Love"), he explores the love lives of feisty females; in "Koshoku Ichidai Onna" ("The Life of an Amorous Woman"), published in 1686, he includes a brief lesbian scene; and then there is "Nanshoku Okagami" ("The Great Mirror of Male Love"), a 1687 collection that focuses exclusively on love between men.

The sexual openness of Ihara's characters seems to be profoundly out of place in contemporary conservative Japan. Today, the recognition afforded to the LGBT community is hotly debated in the country, and though traditionally conservative nations such as Ireland have legalized same-sex marriage, Japan is lagging behind. A recent legal ruling even rejected the right of partners (in practice, women) to keep their surnames after marriage, as a means of protecting "traditional family values."

Though Japan's current social conservatism appears at odds with the West's liberalizing tendencies, it's also at odds with the nation's own past. Writers, stretching from Ihara to modern authors such as Natsume Soseki and Yukio Mishima, have often approached sexuality with curiosity.