Bought a fascinating book yesterday, Sex and the Floating World by Timon Screech. It’s a detailed, academic look at sexuality during the Edo period. Lots of interesting detail about erotic symbolism and sexual manners.

It also provides a valuable contrast to Western assumptions. The author says that sexuality during the Edo period was a kind of fluid bisexuality. Both men and women could and often did, take same sex lovers. Indeed, homosexual relations were common and even institutionalised in some circumstances.

‘Heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ were not fixed, distinct human types, rather they were understood as activities.

We could say the normal Edo sexuality was bisexual, but this is not quite accurate either, for there was scant sense of the binarism which must exist for bisexuality to be able to cross. A body of writing exists about the two types of intercourse called, in mock epic fashion, the Way of Women (nyodõ) and the Way of Boys (shudõ or wakashudõ)…

This Edo ability to flow across what we regard as opposing sexualities, without even noticing them, allowed great freedom.

It was not uncommon for upper-class men to retain a young male lover. As with Roman sex, the upper-class man was expected to penetrate and the woman or lesser male to be penetrated. Apparently the third shogun, Iemitsu caused a scandal, not because he had male lovers (as did his father Hidetada) but because he liked to take the passive role and be penetrated.

Homosexuality was common amongst the samurai. It was felt that women, being too yin, might weaken the samurai’s yang. Therefore they often took their apprentice as a lover.

Homosexuality was also common amongst monks of the Shingon Buddhist sect.

For the middle or lower-class men their were kagema – male prostitutes. And for the wealthy middle-class there were the female impersonators attached to the Kabuki theatre.

Nor was gender strictly confined to narrow categories, for there were feminine men, transsexuals and masculine women.

And neither was there a demand for privacy or strict heterosexual pairings. Sexual activity could take place in the company of others or in various group formations.



The above shunga shows a man masturbating a young man whilst penetrating a woman (he is licking his finger in preparation for anal intercourse, but with whom?). The shunga below shows a woman penetrating another using a dildo.

The Japanese eros was not without challenge. There was increasing complaint from the upper-class that the lower-classes were indulging their passions at the expense of other Japanese institutions. This was not a complaint that such free sexuality was immoral in the Western sense, but that it needed to be ‘balanced’ against the other needs of society; that it had gone ‘too’ far.

The next challenge came with Western imperialism. Japanese sexuality offended Christians and gradually, after much internal conflict, the politicians of the Meiji era sought to conform to Western standards. This process of the Westernization of Japanese sexual mores entered another era after WW2.

Yet the Japanese eros seems to be fighting back. Japanese homosexuals are reminding their kinsmen of the history of homosexuality in Japan. And the new art forms of anime and manga copy the themes of earlier erotic art and are again crossing the boundaries. There are sub-genres that appeal to many tastes: male-male, boy-love, boy-love for girls, female-female and girl-love. Much of this, though perfectly legal in Japan, is banned as pornography in the West.

Again, much of the above information was hidden from Western eyes. The US army burned warehouses full of Japanese erotica and what remained was censored in both Japan and the West. It is only really now that there has been a serious attempt to study it.

But what is even more important is what it tells us about human sexuality in general. It turns out that Western norms are not universal. We should stop pretending they are.

Note: Once again the censorship laws are inconsistent. Books showing explicit shunga are freely available, usually in the section on Japanese art (Screech’s book contains images and text concerning bestiality, pederasty and pedophilia). You can also find numerous examples of graphic shunga quite openly on the Internet. Yet similar anime and manga images are censored. Apparently shunga are of historic and artistic value, but manga is contemporary, commercial and therefore of no value (which of course, once applied to shunga). I don’t expect censorship to be rational and coherent, but this is something of a glaring contradiction. This is not a throwaway point because it seems the passing of time lessens the offence, yet by banning contemporary images we rob the future of their right to decide.