Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

The Floating World

The Gay Love Letters of a Samurai

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Homosexuality was a fully integrated and non-stigmatized part of seventeenth-century Japanese culture, flourishing primarily within the Buddhist priestly tradition, among samurai (warrior) classes and in kabuki theater, where handsome young men dressed as boys or women (onnagata) onstage and functioned as courtesans offstage. Gay love letters are often referred to in Japanese literature, notably in the collection of forty stories in The Great Mirror of Male Love (Nanshoku &okagami) (1687) written by Ihara Saikaku (164293) describing (and advocating) love between adult men and youths. The onnagata Matsushima Han'ya, who retired from the stage in 1686, age twenty, was famous for the elegant style of his love letters to other boys. Boys could not resist the love letters sent to them by the master of martial arts Maruo Kan'emon. Dekijima Kozarashi, a popular boy actor in the 1670s, received hundreds of love letters from the men who watched him perform. In the Great Temple in Naniwa where kabuki actors worshipped their patron saint Aizen Myo-o, they would hang love letters on a sacred cherry tree, sometimes sealed, sometimes for all to read, praying to be united with the men they loved. In one of Saikaku's stories a wealthy monk's hermitage is covered by wallpaper which upon closer inspection turns out to be hundreds of gay love letters composed by kabuki boy actors and left as gifts as they departed his shelter. In addition to love letters, men would often prove their love for one another by slashing their arms or cutting their thighs or, quite common, slicing off the tip of their thumb and tossing it on the stage as if it were a bouquet of flowers. The west finds it difficult to empathize with this kind of ritualized sadomasochism – culminating in seppuku or ritual suicide at the slightest whisper of dishonor. The actor of boys' roles Togawa Hayanojo killed himself in 1686 not because he had a male lover – to whom he wrote a moving farewell letter – but because he could not pay for the expensive clothes required by his profession. Similarly amongst the samurai homosexuality in itself was never a cause for shame. The following letter is reproduced in Ihara's "Love Letter Sent in a Sea Bass", a story based upon a nonfictional account of a real incident involving a young samurai named Mashida Toyonoshin which took place in Bizen Province in 1667. Despite the semi-fictionalized context, it is clear that Saikaku is working from written sources, and the letter itself is essentially a genuine letter, as is the poem with which it concludes, which only slightly modifies the poem actually written by Mashida Toyonoshin in the published account. Thirteen-year-old Toyonoshin (named "Jinnosuke" in the story), one of the most beautiful boys in Izumo Province, swears a vow of love with the twenty-eight-year-old samurai Moriwaki Gonkuro. But boys in the lord's personal service are forbidden to establish sexual relationhips with outsiders not in the same service. The older samurai secretly sends love letters to the boy hidden in the mouth of a sea bass. They first make love when the boy is fourteen years old, and they continue their secret meetings until his sixteenth year, when a minor retainer in the same lord's service, the guard Hanzawa Ihei, begins courting him. Toyonoshin refuses to answer the guard's love letters, and the guard challenges him to a fight to the death. Toyonoshin asks Gonkuro for help, but Gonkuro says he should find some way of placating Ihei and avoiding violence. Toyonoshin perceives this as cowardice, and decides to meet the challenge alone, but first he expresses his resentment in a letter to Gonkuro, reproduced below. But at the last minute Gonkuro proves his love by joining Toyonoshin in the duel, and they and their two attendants kill six members of Ihei's party and injure seven others and chase the rest away. They then decide to commit ritual suicide but await the decision of their lord, whose law they have violated and whose retainers they have killed. The lord forgives them because of their valor, and has the rest of Ihei's party rounded up and killed. Everyone flocks to see Toyonoshin's wondrous sword, and the love of Toyonoshin and Gonkuro becomes a model for all aspiring young samurai: "all yearned to sacrifice their lives for the sake of male love."


[Bizen Province]
Kambun 7 [1667], third month, 26th day

          From the very beginning, when I first said, "this body is no longer my own," I understood that I would have to die if the nature of our relationship were ever revealed. Now that this situation has come about I feel no particular sorrow. Tonight, I shall fight to the finish at a mountain temple.
          In view of our years of intimacy, I am deeply hurt that you should hesitate to die with me. Lest it prove to be a barrier to my salvation in the next life, I decided to include in this final testament all of the grudges against you that have accumulated in me since we first met.
          First: I made my way at night to your distant residence a total of 327 times over the past three years. Not once did I fail to encounter trouble of some kind. To avoid detection by patrols making their nightly rounds, I disguised myself as a servant and hid my face behind my sleeve, or hobbled along with a cane and lantern dressed like a priest. No one knows the lengths I went to in order to meet you!
          Remember last year, the twentieth day of the eleventh month? I as gravely ill (with worry about you, I am sure), and my mother stayed at my bedside all evening. I was convinced that I would not see morning, but the thought of dying without one last meeting with you was unbearable. I cursed the light of the rising moon and made my way in disarray to your door. Surely you recognized my footsteps, but my only welcome was to have you extinguish the lamp and hush your conversation. How cruel you were to me! I would love to know who your companion was that night.
          Next: Last spring, I casually wrote the poem "My sleeves rot, soaked with tears of jealous rage, [and with them, alas! rots my good reputation, ruined for the sake of love]" on the back of a fan painted by Kano no Uneme in the pattern of a "riot of flowers." You took it and said, "The cool breeze from this fan will help me bear the flames of our love this summer." How happy you made me! But shortly it came to my attention that you gave the fan to your attendant Kichisuke with a note across the poem that said, "This calligraphy is terrible."
          Again, when I asked you for your favorite lark as a gift (the one you got from the birdcatcher Jobei), you refused and gave it to Kitamura Shohachi instead. He is, of course, the most handsome boy in the household. My jealousy has not abated yet.
          Next: On the eleventh day of the fourth month past, the lord ordered all of his young attendants from the inner chamber to practice horseback riding. Setsubara Tarozaemon was kind enough to tell me that the back of my skirt was soiled and brushed it off for me. You were standing directly behind me, but did not tell me about it. In fact, I saw you exchange amused glances with Kozawa Kurojiro. After our years of love together such a thing should never happen.
          Next: On the eighteenth of the fifth month, you were angry with me for talking well into the night with Ogasawara Han'ya. As I explained to you that night, he came for recitation practice along with Ogaki Magosaburo and Matsuhara Tomoya. There were no other visitors. Han'ya is still a mere child, Magosaburo is my age, and Tomoya you know. There should be no problem with our getting together to practice every night if we wish, yet you are still full of suspicions. I find your frequent insinuating remarks very upsetting. By the gods of Japan, I swear that I still cannot forget my anger at your distrust.
          Next: Since the time when we first became lovers, you never once saw me to my house when we bid each other farewell in the morning. In fact, in all these years, you only twice saw me as far a the bridge in front of Uneme's. If you love someone, you should be willing to see him safely home through wilds filled with wolves and tigers.
          Though I hold this and that grudge against you, the fact that I cannot bring myself to stop loving you must be the work of some strange fate. To weep is my only comfort. For the sake of our friendship up to now, I ask you to pray, even if but once, for my rebirth in paradise. How strange to think that the impermanence of this world should also affect me.
          [He closed the letter with a poem:]

"While yet in full bloom,
it is buffeted by an unexpected gale;
the morning glory
falls with the dew,
ere evening draws nigh."

          These are the thoughts I wanted to leave with you. Evening, my last, is drawing nigh, so I shall bid farewell.

SOURCE: Reprinted from The Great Mirror of Male Love, by Ihara Saikaku, Traqnslated, with an Introduction, by aul Gordon Schalow, with the permissio of the publishers, Stanford University Press. Copyright 1990 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.

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