Japan may come off as a repressive, depressing society where people live sorry, unhappy lives well into their 90s. OK, we might seem that way to the outsider, but in actual fact Japan has consistently been liberal and permissive in certain areas.

Take homosexuality. Shibuya-ku (渋谷区, Shibuya Ward) and Setagaya-ku (世田谷区, Setagaya Ward) have made it possible for same-sex partners to enjoy the same kazoku (家族, family) benefits as conventional married couples within their wards, but according to my gay friend Kohei: “We’ve always enjoyed plenty of freedom and sympathy. It’s single mothers, working women and abused children that need protection.”

Kohei has a point. He and his boyfriend have lived in the equivalent of matrimonial bliss for the past decade, with the full support of their large circle of friends. They have more or less cut off ties with their aging parents, who expressed ikari (怒り, anger) and fukai shitsubō (深い失望, deep disappointment) at their union, but Kohei says this has exonerated them both from the hassles of kaigo (介護, helping and caring) for parents later on.

Gei da to wazurawashii koto kara kaihō sareru” (ゲイだと煩わしいことから 解放される, “If you’re gay, you become liberated from burdensome stuff”), says Kohei. “Nihon de ikiteiku tame ni wa gei ni naru no ga ichiban” (日本で生きていく ためにはゲイになるのが一番, “To keep on living in Japan, it’s best to be gay”).

Kohei says that pretty soon, Japanese society will be divvied up into aging straight people and aging gay people, and that his camp will be happier, wealthier, less stressed and more likely to make positive contributions to society.

Nihon no shakai wa zutto dōseiaisha o hogo shitekita” (日本の社会はずっと同性愛者を保護してきた, “Japanese society has always protected gay people”), says Kohei. “Ima-sara kekkon o mitomerumade mo nai” (今さら結婚を認めるまでもない, “It’s a bit late in the day to acknowledge marriage”).

History proves him right. Homosexuality is part and parcel of bushidō (武士道, the way of the samurai), and ever since the samurai class established their own bakufu (幕府, shogunate) in 1192, those in authority have separated the women from the men, deeming that female members of a household will weaken and corrupt a man’s resolve. Certainly, offspring were necessary for the bushi (武士, samurai) and his clan to carry on, but otherwise, onnakodomo (女子供, women and children) were often a useless commodity when procreation wasn’t on the agenda.

Japan’s most respected warlord, Oda Nobunaga (織田信長), was apparently a handsome bisexual man who preferred the company of men. In his series “Kunitori Monogatari” (国取り物語, “The Story of Taking the Country”), historian and novelist Shiba Ryotaro recounts how Nobunaga named his female children after household items like yakan (やかん, kettle). He called his favorite daughter Gotoku (五徳, kettle stand) because he deemed her the most useful.

Nobunaga was a great one for packing his children off to neighboring lords as hostages, according to Shiba, who based his novels on historical accounts. When relations between him and the lords went sour, the children were murdered and their heads impaled on the end of sticks — not that Nobunaga cared much, since it gave him the excuse to retaliate.

This warlord kept over a dozen concubines and habitually raped female servants, but personally, he preferred comely young boys. These he trained from childhood to wait on him hand and foot, and allowed them to share his sleeping chambers.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose castle remains Tokyo’s most famed tourist attraction, unified Japan in 1603 when he was in his 60s. Ieyasu is widely acknowledged to have built the foundations of the sarariiman shakai (サラリーマン社会, salaryman society) that defines modern Japanese life. Under Ieyasu, the bushi were separated from wives and children in the guise of shigoto (仕事, work, i.e., serving one’s master) and only saw them about once a month.

The higher a bushi‘s rank, the less time he spent at home, and the regional daimyo (大名, clan lords) were forced to leave their families in the capital city of Edo (江戸 , modern-day Tokyo) as a kind of collateral while they stayed out in their territorial castles. They were allowed to come to Edo every two years or so, for the sankin kōtai (参勤交代), which was an elaborate and expensive parade that took weeks. It’s no wonder, then, that the bushi — whatever his rank — kept boy lovers for emotional solace and sexual happiness. Any relations with women, whether they were formal wives or sokushitsu (側室, concubines), precluded the gimu (義務, obligation) of kozukuri (子作り, childbearing) and paying homage to the Tokugawa Bakufu.

With such a history prodding at their backs, it’s no wonder Japanese men and women find it difficult to live together in love and harmony. “Kekkon ga shiawase nano wa saisho no ichinen dake” (結婚が幸せなのは最初の一年だけ, “Marriage is happy just for the first year”), says my friend Kiyomi, who is a batsuichi (バツ イチ, once-divorced) and now loves attending gōkon (合コン, matchmaking parties) without actively seeking a partner. Kiyomi says the hassles of a katei (家庭, home life) in Japan far outweigh the benefits of having a husband and kids, and she much prefers to just play the field.

Kiyomi is also considering taking a female partner once she hits 50. Since “Otoko wa ate ni naranai” (男はあてに ならない, “Men are so unreliable”), she feels that same-sex cohabitation might be the way to go. Japanese society may have more options that you think.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.