- In The Company of Men: Representations of Male-Male Sexuality in Meiji Literature
The "history of homosexuality" in Japan is no longer a marginal field of academic study in the West. Gregory Pflugfelder, Mark McLelland, Wim Lunsing, Bernard Faure, Sabine Fruhstuck, J. Darren Mackintosh, William LaFleur, John Whittier Treat, Gordon Schalow, Margaret Childs, myself, and others have made contributions. Those in literary studies, like Jim Reichert, have made particularly valuable ones (although literature specialists sometimes give limited attention to historical context). One might now, based upon these scholars' work, construct a substantial college English-language readings course on the representation of male-male sexuality in Japan from the fourteenth century to the present. The Meiji period (1868–1912) is of particular interest as an age of rapid Westernizing transition. Reichert's book, tightly focused on the analysis of texts by Okamoto Kisen, Tsubouchi Shōyō, Yamada Bimyō, Kōda Rohan, Natsume Sōseki, and Mori Ōgai, is a highly useful addition to the reading list. While it slightly overlaps David Pflugfelder's discussion of "male-male sexuality in Meiji discourse" in his Cartographies of Desire, it pioneers in examining these writers' literary engagement with the topic in depth.1
The author's thesis is quite simple: the tradition of nanshoku (the specifically age- and role-structured "male love" of the Tokugawa era, celebrated in the works of Ihara Saikaku, Takizawa Bakin, and many other early modern writers) retained "cultural prestige" and popularity into the Meiji era, especially among members of the former samurai class (6). But writers could only address it in ways that bowed to the "compulsory heterosexuality" promoted by the Westernizing Meiji state. [End Page 355]
It was, of course, members of the samurai class (including those from the Satsuma area, which had a particularly rich tradition of nanshoku) who spearheaded the Meiji Restoration, acquired political power, and embarked on a policy of "civilization and enlightenment" that entailed for a time uncritical borrowing from the West. The leadership, meanwhile, in a "modernizing" measure, abolished samurai status and took other measures, provoking the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 and other uprisings by the former warrior class.
These two facts—the official rejection of the "evil customs of the past" mentioned in the Charter Oath of 1868 and the alienation of a substantial component of the former samurai—shaped the literary depiction of male homosexuality in the Meiji period. The Westerners serving as role models made it clear that modernity demanded the privileging of heterosexual love and the repudiation of nanshoku as "unnatural" and "degenerate." The Meiji leadership accepted this premise without question, much as it accepted the social Darwinist assertion that whites were the "highest race." For them it was all "scientific thought" and justified such measures as the ban on anal sex included in the Reformed Legal Code of 1873.
Nonetheless, some of those alienated by aspects of the Meiji transition fought the break with the past, including the denigration and rejection of nanshoku. They constituted the "cult of hard (kō) masculinity" (3) as opposed to the "soft masculinity" of the heterosexual—especially the dandyish patron of the (female) brothels. The new Western-inspired homophobia notwithstanding, they comprised a market for homoerotic literary material. Reichert shows how some of the most prominent writers of the time addressed this demand while contending with the reformers' expectation that the new genre of the novel be "an exclusively heterosexual literary space" celebrating heterosexual love and attraction as the basis of "civilization" (10).
To indicate the enduring appeal of the nanshoku literary tradition, Reichert begins with a discussion of a late Tokugawa work originating in Satsuma, Shizu no odamaki (The Humble Man's Bobbin). It is a historical romance set in 1599 with traditional samurai homoerotic content: an intergenerational male couple die together in service to their lord. Privately circulated by the early 1880s, it became so popular that it was published by a newspaper of Itagaki Taisuke's Liberal Party in 1884. (Curiously, Reichert doesn't explain how a publication...