BL Roundtable Sidebar: The Mirror of Male-Love Love

Posted by on June 10th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Opening shots by Shaenon Garrity, Noah Berlatsky and Kinukitty; and conclusions by Garrity, Kinukitty, Deppey and Berlatsky.


Author’s Note: This essay was originally intended for a roundtable discussion of Boys’ Love Manga, a collection of academic essays edited by Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry and Dru Pagliassotti. As often happens, my writing got the better of me, and what should have been a thousand-word-or-so piece grew to 10 times that target, touching on a variety of subjects extending beyond the confines of the assigned work. Obviously, this is grossly unfair to the other participants. By common agreement, therefore, my fellow editors and I have decided to set the following essay aside as a sort of sidebar, a companion piece to the roundtable that my fellow contributors are free to discuss or ignore as they wish.


Man and boy lover, drawn by Miyagawa Issh? circa 1750.


My ability to take the book Boys’ Love Manga at face value lasted for exactly 322 words into co-editor Antonia Levi’s introduction, after which it was derailed by the following assertion:

The content of boys’ love stories is not terribly shocking or even surprising to the Japanese audiences for which they were originally intended. Male same-sex romances and erotica intended for a wider, often at least partially female audience, have a long tradition in Japan. Even Lady Murasaki’s usually heterosexual hero Genji indulges in a same-sex affair in the eleventh-century novel Tale of Genji. Stories of same-sex relationships between Buddhist priests and their acolytes (chigo) were common during the feudal era, as were stories about same-sex relationships among samurai. Woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) further illustrated and celebrated such relationships. Kabuki theatre was patronized by women as well as men. The erotic desirability of adolescent male actors (wakashugata), as well as male actors playing female roles (onnagata), was described in widely circulated theatrical critiques (hyōbanki) sold in major cities. This advanced the tradition of same-sex male romances and what can only be described as a fascination with androgyny and the liminal possibilities of gender.

In the nineteenth century, the West brought homophobia to Japan […]

There’s an entire history wrong with the above statement. Like homosexuality itself, “homophobia” is a modern concept. It didn’t exist before the last century, when the contemporary conception of queer identity began to take hold, pioneered by such late 19th- and early 20th-century writers as John Addington Symonds, Magnus Hirschfeld and Edward Carpenter. Prior to that, homosexuality was a fluid and ill-defined idea, often resting on base assumptions so contradictory and flawed that the very terminology rendered any discussion of the subject farcical and malignant. One wasn’t discussing “homosexuals,” but rather sodomites, catamites, tribades, inverts or pederasts. The people being discussed didn’t have identities but rather inclinations at best, sicknesses and corruptions of the spirit at worst. And in cultures where same-sex relations were excused or (occasionally) celebrated, it was almost never in the form that we accept today — adults in sexual and/or romantic relationships — but rather relationships between grown men and teenage boys.

This was certainly the case in Japan before Admiral Perry forced that nation’s opening to the West. Contrary to what Levi implies, there is actually ample evidence for same-sex pederastic relationships in Japanese history and folklore, not the socially acceptable homosexual relationships as we define them in the modern sense. The distinction is more than one of mere semantics. Levi cites a scene from The Tale of Genji, for example, but fails to note the exact circumstances, in which the protagonist sleeps with the adolescent brother of the girl he desires after being refused by her. Boy love was actually fairly common in pre-Meiji Japan, and was the focus of a variety of traditions, depending upon caste and occupation. All, however, shared a single common feature: The passive role in same-sex relations was considered to be the exclusive province of boys. While grown men retaining this role was not unheard-of, such men were the objects of ridicule and satire. It’s true that they were not actually sanctioned by law, but they certainly drew social opprobrium.

(It should be noted that this phenomenon extends only to same-sex relationships among men — heterosexual men typically have had little problem with marrying younger women or teenage girls, but if there’s ever been a corresponding proscription against relationships with women one’s own age or older, I’ve never heard of it. And to the extent that anyone noticed lesbian relationships to begin with, historically speaking, little if any mention seems to have been made of age differences.)

The best text in which to see this pederastic social dynamic of historical Japan in action is the celebrated Great Mirror of Male Love [“Nanshoku Ōkagami,” also translated simply as The Mirror of Male Love], Ihara Saikaku’s 1687 collection of romantic short stories. From Rutgers University associate professor Paul Gordon Schalow’s introduction to his 1990 translation of same:

A careful reading of Nanshoku Ōkagami makes clear that constraint requiring that male homosexual relations be between adult male and a wakashu [teenage male partner] was sometimes observed only in the form of fictive role-playing. This meant that relations between pairs of man-boy lovers were accepted as legitimate whether or not a real man and real boy were involved, so long as one partner took the role of “man” and the other the role of “boy” in the relationship.

Schalow cites several stories to make his case, and indeed, a certain amount of “excusing circumstances” can be found in Mirror — but always with a careful dance around social custom, and usually with a certain amount of snickering. In “Two Old Cherry Trees Still in Bloom,” for example, there’s an ageing samurai couple who’ve remained by each other’s side for decades. Schalow writes: “In fact, the man playing the wakashu role is labelled an eccentric in a headnote to the story, reflecting that society was probably less comfortable with an adult man retaining the boy’s role than with a boy playing the adult role. This is perhaps not surprising, since the latter involves the anticipation of a mature future role, but the former means retaining an immature role and abandonment of adult male prerogatives.” Even in the supposedly non-homophobic Japan of antiquity, gay bottoms are not properly perceived to be men.


Detail from the Warren Cup, a Roman drinking cup dating from the first two decades A.D.


This phenomenon wasn’t by any means unique to Japan. Far from it — to the extent that same-sex relations between men were ever considered acceptable anywhere, it was boy-love that escaped censure, not sex between adults. Take what at first glance would seem to be the most obvious example of homosexual culture thriving in the ancient world: Greece. The nature of this culture is so widely known and commonly accepted that you can extract a summary from virtually any source, so let’s take the easy route and go with Wikipedia:

In classical antiquity, writers such as Herodotus, Plato, Xenophon, Athenaeus and many others explored aspects of same-sex love in ancient Greece. The most widespread and socially significant form of same-sex sexual relations in ancient Greece was between adult men and adolescent boys, known as pederasty. (However, marriages in Ancient Greece between men and women were also age structured, with men in their 30s commonly taking wives in their early teens.) Though homosexual relationships between adult men did exist, at least one member of each of these relationships flouted social conventions by assuming a passive sexual role. It is unclear how such relations between women were regarded in the general society, but examples do exist as far back as the time of Sappho.

The ancient Greeks did not conceive of sexual orientation as a social identifier, as Western societies have done for the past century. Greek society did not distinguish sexual desire or behavior by the gender of the participants, but rather by the role that each participant played in the sex act, that of active penetrator or passive penetrated. This active/passive polarization corresponded with dominant and submissive social roles: the active (penetrative) role was associated with masculinity, higher social status, and adulthood, while the passive role was associated with femininity, lower social status, and youth.

As in the Greek world, so elsewhere: During the Roman Republic and later Empire, boy-love was seen as acceptable, while adults with the desire to be penetrated anally were at best objects of scorn, and at worst genuine threats to the prevailing moral order. The Satyricon of Gaius Petronius (also known as Petronius Arbiter) provides what is perhaps the best picture of how the social rules of homosexuality were seen and enforced during this period of Roman history. The work, which has survived to reach us in incomplete form, depicts the adventures of two friends named Encolpius and Ascyltus as they move through a wicked satire of Roman society — the latter of whom was implied to have once been Encolpius’ lover when younger but has since graduated to adulthood and chaste friendship — and the complications brought on by the allure and beauty of Encolpius’ current lover, a teenage slave named Giton. It’s not that men we would consider to be “gay” in the modern sense are missing from the story, mind you: it’s just that they are perceived to be beneath contempt. In the course of the text, our heroes are confronted by the aggressive advances of adult passive homosexuals, referred to contemptuously as “catamites” and presented unambiguously as antagonists, their desires accepted without question to be vulgar and immoral. In ancient Rome as in most of world history, proper grown men do not take it up the ass.

Arabic culture has also left us with ample documentation of the acceptance of pederasty — but not adult same-sex relationships — as a cultural force prior to the rise of Islam. A flowering of poetry devoted to boy-love appeared in Baghdad circa 7-8th century A.D., for example, but it fell in line with the standard seen in ancient Athens and elsewhere: The adult lover was the top, the boy was the passive bottom, and relations ended once the boy reached adulthood. While these love poems sometimes danced at the edge of the boy’s entry into manhood, it was nonetheless universally understood that continuing such relationships once after the passive lover unambiguously reaches adulthood was socially and morally unacceptable:

Convention stated that a boy lost his allure once he became adult, the transition being marked by the growth of his beard. The first down on the cheeks was universally considered an enhancement of the boy’s beauty, but also heralded its imminent termination.

This crucial transition became an extremely popular topos for poetry and soon enough generated a response defending the unspoilt beauty of a fully bearded young man. Both points of view continued to find advocates for centuries, resulting eventually in anthologies of “beard poetry” devoted exclusively to this debate.

Nevertheless, the age differential between active and passive partners in a male homosexual relation remained crucial since the sexual submission of one adult male to another was considered a repugnant idea in this society and assumed to be the result of a pathological desire to be penetrated.

Literary works turning a blind eye to homosexual acts between grown men would occasionally appear in antiquitous Arabic culture, but the social circumstances that they reflected never lasted long, and usually involved some form of obvious inequity, such as sex with slaves and eunuchs. From Europe to China, anal sex between two grown men of good standing was always seen as distasteful and immoral, with exceptions invariably “proving the rule” in the Wildean sense.


Detail from a photo of members of the Zuni tribe (circa 1885), with females on the left, males on the right, and Two-Spirited tribal member Whe-Wa standing in the center.


I’m aware of only one real, unambiguous example of a pre-modern set of cultures that have dealt with homosexuality through any avenue other than pederasty: Many Native American tribes practiced what was initially known to Westerners as the “berdache” tradition, and later as the Two-Spirit tradition. Put simply: Prior to the arrival of Westerners on the North American continent, an estimated two-thirds of Aboriginal American tribes dealt with homosexuals through a variety of cross-gender rituals, in which feminine boys and [in some cases] masculine girls would be declared to possess the souls of the opposite gender, and would undergo a variety of tests and ceremonies to reposition them as members of said gender for social purposes. The wide range of cultural variations among tribes makes balderdash of sweeping generalizations, and the nature of such traditions differed from tribe to tribe, so I want to tread carefully here, but it’s important to note that even among Native Americans who practiced such traditions, male same-sex relationships between adult men were not simply accepted as such, but were instead ritualized to make one partner the “woman” of the pairing, and therefore no longer a threat to the community. Men would become “magic women,” and (sometimes) vice versa. This is what the ageing lovers of The Mirror of Male Love were depicted as attempting, but to be declared Two-Spirited was to be invited into the tribe to a degree that would have been unimaginable to the Japanese, Greeks, Arabs or virtually any other culture on Earth prior to the 20th century.

All of which is a long way of saying that modern definitions of homosexuality and homophobia really have no place in the discussion of same-sex relationships prior to the rise of the modern gay-identity (and later gay-rights) movements of the past century or so, and certainly no place in the discussion of what happened to Japanese culture when Admiral Perry and those who followed him imported the Western world onto Japanese shores. Christianity’s big innovation regarding homosexuality, after all, was to declare sex with boys to be just as repulsive as sex between grown men. Perry, accustomed to life on the high seas with an all-male crew, almost certainly would have been familiar with the concept of buggery, but that’s not what he found in Japan. What he found was man/boy pederasty: a subset of homosexuality, not homosexuality in the larger sense. The West did not “import homophobia” to Japan in the 19th century; rather, it made plain its revulsion to the corruption of what it considered to be boyhood innocence. You could make a solid and defensible argument that homophobia was introduced to Native Americans post-Columbus, but not to Japan post-Perry.


I don’t mean to extravagantly castigate Antonia Levi for the willful and deliberate distortion of history, or even single her out as some particularly unreliable narrator — certainly not for a few relatively trivial comments (and certainly not in light of some of the authors who follow her in the book in question). In discussing the history of homosexuality, after all, she swims in murky waters with often difficult currents. In the past few decades, historians looking to reclaim or outright construct “gay history” have found ample evidence of subcultures and larger cultural mores devoted to same-sex love between males, but many have danced very carefully around this dichotomy between pederasty and actual sexual relations between adults, sometimes excusing it as little more than the homosexuality of the era or even blurring or ignoring the line altogether. Exceptions to the rule — and as with all human experiences, there are always copious exceptions — are sometimes presented as though they were the rule themselves.

It’s easy to understand why some historians have done this: Given the homophobic nature of world history prior to the rise of the modern gay-rights movement, it’s perfectly natural to want to offer a more balanced corrective. Nonetheless, this need to offer redress, when combined with the imposition of modern political and cultural ideas upon periods and people where they would have been seen as alien, has led to a certain amount of scholarly chaos, and writers and researchers covering the same peoples and periods have disagreed wildly over competing interpretations of the same documents and records. This phenomenon has lessened since, say, the 1960s and ’70s, but has not gone away entirely.

So what does all of this have to do with Boys’ Love Manga? Two things: Reading the book, I’ve found myself thinking that yaoi-related scholarship seems to be going through similar birthing pains right now. Many of the authors quite obviously see themselves not only as academic chroniclers of the boys’-love manga subculture, but advocates for it as well. This tends to lead to a sort of “conclusions first, then the evidence” methodology that tends to preclude the act of discovery through investigation so vital to proper scholarship. Over time, this can lead to a false consensus that becomes harder and harder to unravel as narratives become further entrenched. Which is a shame, because the other thing that the above should remind us is that the truth behind a given subject is usually far more complex than whatever one might have imagined at first glance.


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3 Responses to “BL Roundtable Sidebar: The Mirror of Male-Love Love”

  1. Dirk Deppey says:

    I should note that when this piece was posted, I hadn’t noticed that an important part of a quotation from Antonia Levi’s introduction (located at the top of page one) seemed to have mysteriously vanished during the editing process. I have no idea why this occurred, but as it was an important part of the resulting rebuttal, I have re-inserted the missing text.

  2. J. Ryo says:

    With all respect, I am from Indonesia and I’m interested in Yamila Abraham’s essay about yaoi in Indonesia. Perhaps it is asking too much but can I ask for its transcript since I cannot justify importing a not-so-good book for an essay that may or may not be worthwhile. Perhaps I can shed some light about the correctness of it.

    As far as I know though, while properties with pretty boys like Black Butler is very popular among teenager girls here, yaoi fandom is not visible even through any large forums. There are some artists that do BL stuff, but it seems that they are not connected though any specialized community. Also, perhaps knowing the conservative nature of our country, some of them actually released their BL-themed work in USA (OEL) and not here.

  3. IraeNicole says:

    Thats a nice piece of trans erasure you have regarding third gender cultures and two spirit peoples.