Pre-war attitudes towards queer sexuality in the Japanese press


This is the 16th year that I have had the pleasure of presenting my annual column on queer history. I want to start today’s episode by acknowledging J-Sei’s 2020 online exhibit “Seen & Unseen: Queering Japanese American History Before 1945,” co-curated by Nichi Bei Weekly columnist Amy Sueyoshi and Stan Yogi. It was a landmark in the public presentation of the history of Japanese-American sexuality, especially in the period leading up to World War II, and featured a number of newspaper articles and other artifacts that expanded our knowledge of the past (full disclosure: I was an advisor to the exhibit). I have done my own research along the same lines, particularly studying attitudes toward LGBT sexuality in the Japanese-language press during the pre-war years. Using the Hoji Shinbun database at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, which offers digitized pages from the historic Nikkei press in English and Japanese, I was able to make some discoveries about the coverage of sexuality in the press Issei. (I remain grateful to Koji Lau-Ozawa and Chris Suh for their help in localizing the texts, and to Takako Day and Michiko Aramaki for the translation work).

So far, I have located a dozen references to LGBT people in Japanese-language newspapers during the pre-war period – a small but revealing body of sources. Those from the period before 1924 referred to events in the Old Country, reflecting the Japanese origin of the immigrants. They also introduced the poetic term nanshoku (aka danshoku), the homosexual love known to samurai in the Tokugawa era, and which Ihara Saikaku most famously wrote about in his 1687 anthology “Nanshoku Okagami”.

In an article in the Hawaii Hochi in 1913, the author fondly recalls his school days in Japan, when a visiting Biwa musician scandalized the elders by playing a piece with text from a novel on the danshoku. Three years later, the Hochi printed an excerpt from Saikaku’s text. In 1908, Nippu Jiji published a report from Tokyo on journalist and cultural critic Yubi Aoyagi, which denounced women as stupid and compared prostitutes unfavorably to nansho. The Nippu Jiji reported from Beijing the same year that male prostitutes there, like geishas in Japan, had an accepted place in society and were allowed to accompany high officials. Rafu Shimpo reported on a nanshoku school teacher in Tokyo who acted strangely towards boys passing by in the streets.

Post-1924 references were broader and ambivalent. A 1931 Hawaii Hochi article, which marked the only prewar use of the modern word dōseiaisha (a direct translation of “homosexual”), referenced gay literary critics such as Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde. Several years later, Hawaii Hochi reproduced a mainstream press report about an escaped criminal who raped an 11-year-old boy. During this time, Rafu Shimpo published several stories of nanshoku criminals and arrests, involving Japanese as well as non-Japanese. A 1934 article told of a Japanese man in Kobe who allegedly slept with 200 men in seven years. Another article from 1938 reports the arrest in Berlin of the German Gottfried von Cramm, the world’s second largest amateur tennis player, who is said to be a nanshoku.

One aspect of the Nichibei Shinbun’s Japanese-language content was scattered reference to sexology in Japan, including the study of hentai (perversion). A 1929 article in the Rafu Shimpo featured an article by Issei writer and educator Yaemitsu Sugimachi on the sexual problems of hentai immigrants. Sugimachi told the story of a 60-year-old Issei who immigrated to the United States when he was 17, by which time he was already sexually active with women. After years of heterosexual relationships, including buying sex from prostitutes during his college years, he went drinking with a male friend and ended up having sex with him and found the experience satisfying. In the wake of that night, he became nanshoku and hated being around women. Sent to a psychiatric hospital, he managed to escape.

By far the most notable document on the Issei’s views on homosexuality is the four-part series that appeared in the Rafu Shimpo in September 1931, titled “Beautiful Nisei Okama Boy”. (Okama, literally “pot of rice”, has a long history in Japan as a slang word for buttocks and – by extension – effeminate gay men). It told the story of “Butterfly”, a handsome 22-year-old Nisei man from Los Angeles who sold his body to white lovers, and whom the article’s author interviewed upon his release from prison (on a charge undeclared). In the series, “Butterfly” describes his life. The son of a prosperous grocer’s family, he had become nanshoku at the age of 13, when he experimented sexually with a visiting 18-year-old male cousin who shared his bed. After that, “Butterfly” began to play the female role – the author of the article said that “Butterfly” looked like a woman. In high school, he had gained a reputation for being handsome and intelligent and wanted to pursue a career in music as a composer. However, he had fallen in love with a classmate, a rich boy named John. After discovering the three danshoku clubs in Los Angeles, John dragged “Butterfly” there to enjoy himself.

Now “Butterfly” was working in one of these danshoku clubs. He described his club as a private club of around 150 members, all of whom were wealthy people, such as doctors, lawyers and actors. The rules were strict and entry was limited to those who had recommendations from several existing members. In the club were handsome okama boys from all over the world, who used its 18 private rooms for free. While they wore men’s clothes outside the club, once inside they would put on women’s clothes, take women’s names, and be called “queens” – on Halloween night and the night before Christmas, they went out to dance halls dressed in women’s clothes and flirted with men. If the boys were ever arrested, the club would send lawyers to bail them out. There were “marriages” celebrated in the clubs, with the exchange of wedding rings.

“Butterfly” said he had five Japanese friends who also sold sex, but they all picked up men on the streets and didn’t work in the clubs like him. He noted that lower-class okama boys met men in parks and had sex in their homes, on the streets, or in public restrooms at hot dog stands and baseball diamonds. “Butterfly” reported that he had toured California the previous spring and summer, and bragged that by the time he got home he had saved $1,700 by selling his body. He concluded that people really couldn’t understand how good sex with a man was. Spring, he explained, was the season when he himself felt the desire of men so strongly that he had to give himself an enema and then try to control his urges. The series ended on a bit of a dark note: the author claimed that “Butterfly” had little chance of changing his life and finding work as a musician, and wondered if he was doomed to a future as a wandering nanshoku, risking prison or venereal disease.

Many aspects of this story remain unverified and may contain exaggerations or fabrications. The scholarly literature on LGBT life in Los Angeles in the 1930s documents the existence of gay bars and gay parties (at least those reported during police raids) but has not identified any networks of such facilities. gay clubs. Yet the amount of detail in the story and the fact that it was neither dismissed out of hand by the paper’s editors nor openly challenged by readers – and that in a community close enough together that the identity of (say) any family of prosperous grocers would be known or easily assumed – suggests that “Butterfly” was not entirely made.

Perhaps more important for our purposes is what the series says about the Issei’s views on sexuality and about the Nisei. Already, a few months earlier, the editor of Nippu Jiji had complained about a “wave of wacky literature” in vogue in Japan which disparaged Nisei by portraying them “in the role of sexual perverts and swindlers”. The Rafu Shimpo series on “Butterfly” (the name evoking the Madame Butterfly stereotype as well as suggesting effeminacy) makes no mention of LGBT among the immigrant generation. Instead, the author begins by stating that although in Japan “words such as chigo-san, okama, and keikan were known”, such practices were more prevalent among white Americans. By discussing “Butterfly” and his colleagues having sex only with white men, the article implies that Nisei is corrupt by American standards. Finally, by using the word okama to describe “Butterfly” and emphasizing his resemblance to women, the article presented him as emasculated, and therefore deformed.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at the University of Quebec to Montreal. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of Nichi Bei Weekly.


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