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  • Juju Kurihara

Japanese Famous Shogun Loved Beautiful Boys?

In ancient Japan, people were more open to sex unlike the present Japan. Despite all sex industry such as soopu (soap land), kyabakura (cabaret clubs), hosuto kurabu (host clubs), pinkusaron (pink salon) and so on. The Japanese sex industry is quite well-known but in the daily life, kissing on the street or talking about sex openly are taboo. Even a couple holding hands was seen as bad until recently.

However, sex wasn’t any shame in the past. Danshoku (男色/men’s homosexuality) or Shudo (衆道/ homosexuality between samurai) was accepted in the society and it was even a part of the culture. Some wrote books about it.

Otomono Yakamochi (大伴家持) is one of the greatest poet in Nara period (710-794). He was such a beautiful boy and his father’s Chinese assistant loved him so much that he sent a love letter to young Yakamochi.

Fujiwara no Yorinaga (藤原頼長), known as Akusafu (悪左府/evil Minister of the Left) left his sex life with guys in a diary, Taiki (台記). From this diary, we can know with whom Yorinaga had relationships and how he approached them. Yorinaga was quite a passionate man and once when he fell in love with Fujiwara no Takasue (藤原隆季), he kept sending love letters that made Takasue scared. In stead of giving up, Yorinaga got a talisman and prayed every night. At the end he tricked Takasue and managed to have a sex with him. Unfortunately Yorinaga wasn’t so poetic as his nature and in the diary, it was written as 遂本意了 (finally my intension succeeded).

Ihara Saikaku (井原西鶴) known as a poet and a creator of the “floating world”genre of Japanese prose (ukiyo-zoshi) wrote Nanshoku Ookagami (男色大鑑/The Great Mirror of Male Love) in 1687. Saikaku depicted the love between samurai, particularly adult samurai and teenage “beautiful” boys or the Lord and his young “beautiful” assistants. In Edo period, it was very important that the boys were “beautiful" and it was emphasised in the book all the time. Saikaku called the boys who passed their youth “miserable sakura leaves” or “chipped moon” and sadly, most of those beautiful lovers ended up with having seppuku or becoming a monk after realising how empty the life was.

Nanshoku Ookagami is now available as a comic if you are not encouraged to read the original version.

It is quite known that Oda Nobunaga (織田信長) loved his page, Maeda Toshiie. Toshiie was a tall beautiful boy when he started to serve Nobunaga. Also Nobunaga’s relationshiop with Mori Ranmaru was quite a known story. They worked as a helper of powerful shogun as well as a sex partner, especially when they were at a battle where shogun couldn’t take their wives.

A chief vassal of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Ii Naosuke was the greatest Shogun's lover as a boy. Naosuke was so beautiful that Ieyasu didn’t want him to have an initiation in order to keep him longer. Later, Naosuke became a daimyo and like him, some of the lovers of famous Shogun had become a powerful high rank samurai themselves.

Takeda Shingen (武田信玄) was called Kai no Tora (甲斐の虎/The tiger of Kai Province) and known for his greatest strategy. Any portrait of him, you will see a tough guy. But Shingen was also involved with boy lovers.

This is Shingen’s love letter to the lover at that time, called Gensuke who accused Shingen for cheating.  The letter shows how desperate Shingen was. It’s cute to imagine a tough Shogun wrote a letter to tried to make excuses.
This is Shingen’s love letter to the lover at that time, called Gensuke who accused Shingen for cheating. The letter shows how desperate Shingen was. It’s cute to imagine a tough Shogun wrote a letter to tried to make excuses.

The Tokugawa’s third Shogun, Iemitsu had no interest in women and the people around him were worried that the family would end here. His nanny had a plan. She collected many beautiful women all over Japan to live in the castle and hoped some of them might catch Iemitsu’s attention. This is thought to be the beginning of Ooku (大奥/shogun’s harem).

It didn’t go so easy as Iemitsu preferred men than women. It is believed that he began to show his interest towards men when he was 13 or 14 years old and had relationships with around 20 men until he was close to 40. But the nanny played it by ear and disguised one of the beautiful women as a man. And it worked. He had six children, and as we know, the Tokugawa family ruled Japan for 264 years.

While samurai were busy chasing beautiful boys, Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the most pervert man in the Sengoku period. Hideyoshi’s fondness for women were famous. He had at least 16 secondary wives and besides, he would never miss the chance to pick up noble women.

But a man like Hideyoshi was strange to other samurai. There was an episode about it. One day, other samurai tried to set him up with a beautiful boy. As soon as Hideyoshi saw this boy, he asked, “You are such a beautiful boy. Do you have any sisters?”. Hideyoshi had no interest for boys or older women. Back then he was considered as a total freak.

Hideyoshi’s love for women was mentioned in a book, “History de Japam” written by a Catholic missionary, Luís Fróis. According to Fróis’ observation, Hideyoshi had approximately 300 second wives, which is probably an exaggeration but it could be true that he slept with 300 women.

A postgraduate school professor explains early Japan’s homosexuality wasn’t coming from hate for women but was coming from a homosocial society. Historically Japan had many institutions where only men were allowed to participate, such as monks’ residents, samurai society, kabuki or sumo. The professor emphasises that this phenomenon of beautiful feminine young boys becoming an object of love desire happened because of the homosocial environment. In other word, it was a strong bond between men.

Men’s homosexuality in especially Edo period wasn’t a partnership. Men would have a family to have children in order to keep the family but the joy of love was sought in beautiful boys. It was a hedonistic relationship and therefore, the men looked for the beauty. The professor reminds us that the book such as Nanshoku Ookagami doesn’t refer to the gender equality or the rights for LGBTQ and it was a pure unrealistic fantasy and pleasure. Probably it was also an escape from the hard reality, the pressure from ruling the country, from the battles or from the politics as well as the men’s bond.

There were many cases of famous Shogun loved beautiful boys in the Sengoku period. But it was a part of the life and wasn’t anything people would discriminate. Perhaps people were more open and tolerant to the sex in any form.


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