Welcome back to Queer History 101.
As a young girl growing up in Japan, Sachi Schmidt-Hori was aware of how “atypical” her childhood was. The daughter of a hosutesu (a nightclub “hostess,” who entertains her clients through drinks, her charm, and conversations) in Kabukichō (Tokyo’s entertainment and red-light district), Schmidt-Hori recalls the afternoons spent watching her mother prepare for work. “I would come home from school,” she says, “and find my mother doing her makeup. And I was just enamored with her beauty. I would just watch.”
Today, Schmidt-Hori is an Associate Professor of Asian Societies, Cultures, and Languages at Dartmouth College specializing in Queer Premodern (before 1600) Japanese History. She's drawn a clear path from her upbringing to her current interests: as she writes in the prelude of her book, Tales of Idolized Boys: Male-Male Love in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Narratives, “A seed for [my] research was planted in my heart when I was nine or ten.”
It’s in this book–an analysis of premodern Japanese literature and the history of gender and sexuality–that Schmidt-Hori explores non-normative sexuality in Japan and its critical reception by outsiders. That critical reception, largely imposed by Western culture, doesn’t match her lived experiences. “I didn't grow up in a typical culture where sexuality is hush-hush,” she explained. “I have very different ideas about what sexuality and erotics are.”
“There are so many pieces of the puzzle,” Schmidt-Hori continued, “that are quite amazing about the history of sexuality in Japan. They are completely separate from the Christian-based nations in the West, but also China and India.” Over the course of its history, Japan, an independent island country, had developed its own culture around gender and sexuality.
In Japan's early history, as Schmidt-Hori explained, “The ruling class of premodern Japan, including royals, aristocrats, and elite religious figures, associated sexuality foremost with fertility, as in Japan’s agrarian culture. When sexuality is linked to vitality and prosperity, women’s sexuality is not degraded, and gender becomes a fluid concept, because there is no inherent male superiority. Male and female were complementary to each other.”
In Japanese mythology, the most powerful deity is a woman: Amaterasu, the sun goddess. But Japanese deities are often gender fluid, including Amaterasu. And these depictions reflect a culture that embraced androgynous male aesthetics. This was the ideal Japanese masculinity: “Rather than competing against the machismo of the Chinese kingdom, elite Japanese men developed their own gender and national identity, which we can describe as ‘feminine’ or ‘androgynous’ masculinity. And it was completely normal for elite men to have both female and younger male partners.”
A significant shift in Japanese masculinity would occur, however, with a visitor from the West. In 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry led a squadron of gun boats to Uraga. As Schmidt-Hori put it, “Matthew Perry pressured Japan to open up its borders and sign an unequal commercial treaty--or be invaded.” Under the pressure of this life-and-death situation, the Japanese had a choice to make.
“The people of Japan came to an awakening,” Schmidt-Hori explained. “Either we become a colony of America, or we could emulate them and be more like them. Those are the two choices.” Schmidt-Hori argues that they chose to adopt militaristic masculinity and Christian ethics on gender and sexuality, such as a ban on male homosexuality and co-ed bathhouses, for the survival of the Japanese Empire. The shift worked for the time being, but the ripple in Japanese culture was inevitable, made visible in depictions of Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189).
“Yoshitsune is a national icon, a beloved historical military hero who lived in the late 12th century,” said Schmidt-Hori. “In the earliest record of military tales from the 14th century, he’s presented as a short and ugly country bumpkin.” But he didn’t stay this way for long. “People started creating legends about him in the 15th-16th centuries, and he received this total makeover. He was reinvented as a beautiful, noble figure.” This new image reflected Japan’s reverence for feminine masculinity.
As the subjects of the modern Empire of Japan gradually internalized Western notion of masculinity and aversion to androgyny, Yoshitsune’s appearance changed once again. “This time around, Yoshitsune was recreated as an adolescent boy. He embodied 'small but mighty,' Japan's wartime unofficial propaganda.”
Fortunately, foreign influences and government propaganda did not completely change the notions of gender and sexuality indigenous to Japan. For instance, kabuki–Japan’s traditional theatre, with a name that means “to tilt” or “to queer something”–is still very popular. It features an all-male cast, and there are actors who specialize in playing women. “I have seen a beautiful kabuki play," Schmidt-Hori said, "with a father/son duo where the father plays a courtesan, and his own son is the male lover. Of course, it’s not that they're trying to recreate something realistic–the actors perform gender through the stylized forms of body movement, voice quality, language, makeup, hairstyle, clothes, and so on.”
Kabuki is one of many traditional art forms that reflect traditional Japanese ideas about gender and sexuality: gender fluidity, lack of aversion to erotic entertainment, and same-sex intimacies sans Western criticism. “You have to learn how to appreciate the layered meanings of this kind of representation,” said Schmidt-Hori. “My job is to locate and investigate meta-historical discourse about how people in Japan came to understand non-normative sexuality and disseminate my discoveries through teaching and writing.”
As we wrapped up our conversation, Schmidt-Hori left me with a final thought, revealing a path forward for queer acceptance in all societies. “If a culture does not think of sexuality–especially female sexuality–as taboo, but rather as something positive, it can lead to less gender hierarchy, more gender fluidity, and same-sex desire. If our culture becomes less sex-negative, then it can lead to increasing gender equality, less militant masculinity, and less homophobia.”
To learn more about the rich, fascinating history of sexuality and queerness in premodern Japan, check out Schmidt-Hori’s book, Tales of Idolized Boys: Male-Male Love in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Narratives.