Feudal Japan is often idealized in historical works of art and modern fiction. This historical period is associated with fierce samurai, elegant courtesans, and an ever-present sense of formality in dress and culture (conversely, if you want a view of the violent, chaotic ugliness of the period, check out samurai cinema). Sex in feudal Japan was often idealized too, but sexuality was a lot less elegant and formal than many realize. This list will explore these harsh realities, and describe what sex was like in feudal Japan.
Some of these feudal Japan sex life items are surprising. For example, samurai often had sex with 12-year-old boys during official apprenticeships. Aristocratic men could have multiple wives and concubines, while their female counterparts were stuck with one husband. In feudal Japan, sex life was influenced by social standing. Essentially, one’s sexual partner was almost always of a similar social background. Lower class teens in feudal Japan were free to have as much sex as possible, but upper class youths had to follow strict rules about whom they could see and marry.
When you hear the word samurai, you probably think of violence, honor, loyalty, a strict code of behavior. Maybe you see images of Toshiro Mifune or Tatsuya Nakadai, in a vortex of swirling wind and sand, mercilessly slicing down enemies. Or Zatoichi (who technically wasn’t a samurai, just fyi) laying waste to hoards of yakuza scum.
You should also include hooking up with children and anal play in your definition of samurai. Samurai lived by a code, the way of the warrior, which provided various precepts. One of these precepts was shudo (abbreviated from wakashudō, “way of adolescent boys”). Shudo encouraged samurai to take on young, male lovers around the age of 12. Such “apprenticeships” were intended to create strong bonds between established samurai and future ones. The relationships would carry on until the boy reached adulthood and became a samurai.
As history shows us, there’s not much similarity between Buddhist monks in Japan and Christian monks in Europe when it comes to sexuality. While ostensibly bound to a vow of chastity in certain sects of Buddhism, famously iconoclastic Zen monk Ikkyū once wrote, “follow the rule of celibacy and you are no more than an a**.”
Buddhist monks often openly indulged in age-unbalanced nanshoku, or pederast relationships in which they bum-shagged their young male acolytes, who were adolescent. Monks also carried on open relationships with women. Ikkyū even married a woman after he grew “exhausted with homosexual pleasures.”
Christian visitors to Japan were disgusted by the habits of monks. To quote Wikipedia on the subject, “Jesuit priest Francis Cabral wrote in 1596 that ‘abominations of the flesh’ and ‘vicious habits’ were ‘regarded in Japan as quite honourable; men of standing entrust their sons to the bonzes to be instructed in such things, and at the same time to serve their lust.’
In some ways, teenage farmers had more freedom than teenage elites in feudal Japan. Wealthy adolescents had to abide many tedious social rules, rituals, and traditions. Their love and intimate lives were completely controlled by their families and subject to the approval of other elites. Adolescent farmers, on the other hand, were free to have many partners, as long as the other kids were farmers too. It was common for these horny teens to meet in wakamo yado, or “young peoples huts,” to bang. These dalliances would continue until a girl got pregnant, at which point the two young farmers would get married.
Homosexuality Was Fairly Common
Feudal Japan had few taboos about homosexuality or bisexuality. In fact, intercourse between men was sometimes idealized and celebrated, and relations with women was considered spiritually draining for men. In Buddhist temples, homosexual relationships were rampant, and usually carried on between seasoned monks and acolytes they mentored. Homosexuality took place openly in the military, as well, and male sex workers saw both male and female clients.
In the case of both monks and samurai, homosexual relationships often ended when one or both partners reached adulthood – in the case of samurai, when the apprentice became a warrior; in the case of monks, when the acolyte became a temple member of equal standing to his lover or a fully fledged monk. This obviously wasn’t the case with people who were paid to hook up or in the military, where clients and lovers were all adults.
Sex Was an Important Part of Japan’s First Creation Myth
Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, has been around in various forms for thousands of years, and its recorded history began in 712 CE. According to the Shinto creation story, sex precedes the birth of a nation and its people. In this myth, one ancient being said to another:
My body, formed though it be formed, has one place which is formed to excess. Therefore, I would like to take that place in my body which is formed to excess and insert it into that place in your body which is formed insufficiently, and thus give birth to the land. How would this be?
Another writing states that “all sexual love is unconditional good.” This is obviously very different from how it’s is depicted in Christianity’s creation myth. In Genesis, love making is described as sinful and shameful, while Shintoism viewed it as good and natural.
Sexual Pleasure Was Tantamount to Spiritual Enlightenment
Tachikawa-ryu was a branch of Shingon Buddhism known as the main sex cult of Japan (apparently there were enough cults of this kind to require the designation “main”). According to the sect’s beliefs, making love was a gateway to spiritual enlightenment because intercourse allows for the loss of self. For Tachikawa-ryu Buddhists, doing the deed was an important part of spiritual and religious life. For them, it was more than just an ideal or symbol, it was “”viewed as good in itself apart from its role in procreation.” The Tachikawa-ryu creed also stated “the loss of self in the act could lead to an awakening of the spirit.”
Feudal Japan was obsessed with hierarchies and social ranking. This was true for people who put out for money, as well. Some brothels were clearly nicer than others, but even in high end establishments, there was a distinction between simple night workers and elegant courtesans. Ordinary they were called yūjo, while high-status ones were known as oiran, which is short for “oira no tokoro no nee-san” (“the older sisters of our place”).
The oiran were well-trained entertainers, and they had a surprisingly high social status. Potential clients had to visit them twice before getting serviced, and it was impossible for them to contact oiran without a middle man (usually a nearby tea house). It was even common for men to be denied by an oiran if they were not deemed worthy enough.
Expensive courtesans called oiran learned how to dance, sing, paint, write haiku, write in calligraphy, and how to perform a proper tea ceremony. To the men who visited them, these women seemed polite, relaxed, and happy.
Of course, this was just their act, and many of these “lucky” girls were coerced into sleeping with people for money. They were often indebted to their madams after being forced to pay for expensive clothing and make up. They worked long hours, had poor living conditions, and their training was grueling. These formal courtesans were eventually replaced by the cheaper and more chic geishas.
The notion and fate of a prostitute living in debt servitude to madams and yakuza so permeated Japanese society that it became a narrative trope in period films and fiction. Watch any Zatoichi movie, for instance, and you’re bound to find at least one such character, whom a hero is attempting to rescue from her fate.
It’s not surprising that there were significant double standards regarding marriage in feudal Japan. In the aforementioned Heian period, court marriages were arranged and often polygamous. Officially, men could have multiple wives, concubines, and love affairs. On the other hand, women could only have one official husband at a time. With that being said, it was not uncommon for these elite women to carry on their own affairs in secret.
During the Heian period (794 – 1185 CE), marriage in Japan was not always permanent for upper class couples. At the time, Japanese society was defined by a rigid class system, and marriages were approved or arranged for couples of similar familial backgrounds. Typically, wealthy Japanese people would get married, have a child or two together, and then move on to another marriage if a more suitable (wealthier) spouse became available. Members of lower classes could not afford multiple weddings, so many of them stayed married for life.