Review of Gary P. Leupp’s “Male Colors”

Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan



In Male Colors, Gary Leupp delivers a straightforward, historical account of male homosexual behavior in pre-modern Japan, citing an almost overwhelming number of primary and secondary sources as he tracks the adoption, practice, and eventual decline of nanshoku. Leupp starts his examination by enumerating the terms used during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) to refer to male homosexual behavior and stressing the conceptual difference from the English “homosexuality.” For example, many of these terms explicitly frame male-male sex as a way of behaving, containing the character for “road” or “way” (道). (Wakashudou (若衆道), “the way of youths,” nandou (男道), “the way of men,” bidou (美道), “the beautiful way,” and hidou (秘道), “the secret way” as a few examples.)  For the most part, Leupp sticks to the term nanshoku (男色), a sort of catch-all term for male-eros during the pre-modern era.  Another important aspect of the Edo queer-vernacular is the positive spin put on male-homosexual behavior by referring to it as “the beautiful way” of “the way of men.” This alone seems grounds enough to assume that male homosexual behavior was normative in Tokugawa culture, a claim that Leupp makes early on in the introduction and certainly proves with overwhelming evidence.

Moronobu Hishikawa (1618-1694), Male couple on...

"Male Couple on a Futon" Hishikawa Moronobu (1680's)

Like all social conventions, the history of nanshoku can be broken down to three parts: adoption, practice, and decline.  Mentions of homosexual behavior first began appearing – in earnest – around the middle of the Heian period (794-1185CE), a time when Japan was at its peak of cultural borrowing from the Chinese Court. This “civilizing of society” brought to prominence such things as Buddhism, Confucian thought, poetry, court society, and nanshoku, which was popular among the Chinese literati and imperial court. Leupp also notes a particular indifference towards, and even occasional apotheosis of, feces and anal erogeneity in the origins myths and prayers of Yamato society (pre-literate Japan), something he claims to have not seen in any other pre-literate society. Perhaps the combination of these factors led to the adoption and rise of nanshoku as a social institution.

The bulk of Male Colors is devoted to examining the wide variety of nanshoku practices, as well as their social functions. Nanshoku first rose to prominence during the Heian period in Buddhist monastic communities, and later in the samurai barracks of the Kamakura (1185–1333) and Muromachi (1333 – 1573) periods. Leupp argues that the pederastic relationships in these communities were the result of limited access to women – especially amongst Buddhist monks who also saw it as a compromise on chastity – and, more importantly, the influence of feudal and militaristic ideology, primarily jougekankei (上下関係), the elder-junior relationship. As Leupp points out, military and feudal ideologies, because they so greatly value loyalty, service, and deference, lend themselves to this kind of strong, emotionally intense hierarchical relationship. While undeniably erotic, nanshoku relationships were primarily conceptualized as an extension of this relationship, thus maintain the strict hierarchy of the social order. This same kind of reification was present in the strict gender roles of the partners. The younger would always assume a passive role in sex, and would usually take care to maintain a feminine appearance. In this way, nanshoku relationships were actually complimentary to heterosexual marriage in that they both espoused the same gender hierarchy. As Leupp points out, it was nanshoku’s role as a social institution that made it acceptable, and nowhere is this clearer than in his examination of the commercialization and subsequent decline of nanshoku.

Nanshoku had historically been associated with the social elites, members of the court, monks, and samurai, many of whom were in fact educated in monasteries. As urbanized castle-cities began to emerge during the mid to late Tokugawa period, the status of the samurai began to fall and a new commoner-merchant class began to form. Leupp suggests that because nanshoku was so long associated with high-society, the emerging nouveau riche merchants saw such pederastic relationships as a status symbol, and thus formed a large commercial market of young boy prostitutes as a way of engaging in nanshoku.  This was of course seen as a degradation of the tradition by the sinking samurai class, and did bring with it a certain amount of crime and violence. Authorities and law-makers did start to see nanshoku as a concern but as Leupp makes very clear, “the laws dealing with nanshoku reflect two central concerns: the maintenance of order and the preservation of the status system. Notably absent is any substantial argument concerning the ‘unnaturalness’ of nanshoku.” (170) With this example, Leupp proves his two main points: that male homosexual behavior was normative in Tokugawa culture, and that is was an important social institution that functioned primarily to maintain social order.

Leupp ends Male Colors with a few well-founded albeit modest conclusions in regards to the socially constructed nature of sexuality, mainly that it is. Of course, these conclusions could not exist were there not an implied comparison to our contemporary, and primarily Euro-American,  construction of sexuality as a personality trait and thus potentially deviant or threatening to society’s well being. The questions left unasked is whether or not the state-endorsed homosexuality of the Tokugawa period, which existed as a speculum of the social order, maintaining and reestablishing patriarchal and often oppressive social conventions, is any better a model  than our current one. I believe this question is a particularly relevant one given the mainstream LGBT movement’s strategy of assimilation. As a historian, it is not surprising that Leupp mostly avoids such hypothesizing. However, Male Colors is a rich source of information and historical evidence for anyone in a position to do so.



One thought on “Review of Gary P. Leupp’s “Male Colors”

  1. “Leupp also notes a particular indifference towards, and even occasional apotheosis of, feces and anal erogeneity in the origins myths and prayers of Yamato society (pre-literate Japan), something he claims to have not seen in any other pre-literate society.”
    I’ve read about 1/3 of the Kojiki, and the two mentions of feces I remember are:
    1. When Izanami gives birth to the fire kami and she’s dying, she winds up vomiting and her vomit turns into kami, and urinating and her urine turns into kami and defecating and her feces turns into kami.
    2. When Susanoo is partying because he proved to Amaterasu that he didn’t come to overthrow her, he defecates on the floor of her ceremonial hall (where the harvest matsuri are held), and then flings the feces around the hall.
    The second one’s definitely negative, and the first one, while not entirely negative (I mean, kami are being born), it isn’t exactly positive either (Izanami DIES).
    Now I’m curious what Leupp cited.

    Posted by Dana | October 20, 2011, 8:47 pm

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