Shudo: Homosexuality in Pre-Modern Japan
There was a strong historical tradition of open bisexuality and homosexuality among male Buddhist institutions in Japan.Nanshoku relationships inside monasteries were typically pederastic. The older partner, or nenja (“lover” or “admirer”), would be a monk, while the younger partner was assumed to be an acolyte, who would be a prepubescent or adolescent boy; the relationship would be dissolved once the boy reached adulthood (or left the monastery). Both parties were encouraged to treat the relationship seriously and conduct the affair honorably, and the nenja might be required to write a formal vow of fidelity. Outside of the monasteries, monks were considered to have a particular predilection for male prostitutes, which was the subject of much ribald humor. There was no religious opposition to homosexuality in Japan in non-Buddhist traditions. Tokugawa commentators felt free to illustrate kami engaging in anal sex with each other. During the Tokugawa period, some of the Shinto gods, especially Hachiman, Myoshin, Shinmei and Tenjin, “came to be seen as guardian deities of nanshoku" (male–male love).
From religious circles, same-sex love spread to the warrior (samurai) class, where it was customary for a boy in the wakashū age category to undergo training in the martial arts by apprenticing to a more experienced adult man. This practice, along with clerical pederasty, developed into the codified system of age-structured homosexuality known as shudō, abbreviated from wakashūdo, the “way (do) of wakashū”. The older partner, in the role of nenja, would teach the wakashū martial skills, warrior etiquette, and the samurai code of honor. In addition, both parties were expected to be loyal unto death, and to assist the other both in feudal duties and in honor-driven obligations such as duels and vendettas. Although sex between the couple was expected to end when the boy came of age, the relationship would, ideally, develop into a lifelong bond of friendship. At the same time, sexual activity with women was not barred (for either party), and once the boy came of age, both were free to seek other wakashū lovers. Shudō was strictly role-defined; the nenja was seen as the active, desiring, penetrative partner, while the younger, sexually receptive wakashū was considered to submit to the nenja’s attentions out of love, loyalty, and affection, rather than sexual desire.
As Japanese society became pacified, the middle classes adopted many of the practices of the warrior class, in the case of shudō giving it a more mercantile interpretation. Relations between merchants and boys hired as shop staff or housekeepers were common enough, to be the subject of erotic stories and popular jokes. Male prostitutes and actor-prostitutes serving male clientele were originally restricted to the wakashū age category, but during the 17th century, these men (or their employers) sought to maintain their desirability by concealing their coming-of-age and thus extending their “non-adult” status into their twenties or even thirties. This eventually led to an alternate, status-defined shudō relationship which allowed clients to hire “boys” who were, in reality, older than themselves. This evolution was hastened by mid-17th century bans on the depiction of the wakashū’s long forelocks, their most salient age marker, in kabuki plays; intended to efface the sexual appeal of the young actors and thus reduce violent competition for their favors, this restriction eventually had the unintended effect of de-linking male sexual desirability from actual age, so long as a suitably “youthful” appearance could be maintained.