Japanese boy bands cast young boys with feminine facial features and hairless skin, and girls are crazy about them. Legendary Kabuki actors throughout its 400-year history are all known for pulling off the sexiest female roles, and grabbed the heart of men and women alike. The world’s oldest surviving performance art, Noh, was a birth-child of a handsome prodigy and his male patron almost 700 years ago.

In Japan, particularly men with physical and mental “female” traits have always been considered HOT. To be precise, persons who exert strengths of both masculinity and femininity are considered divine (or just plain sexy), and for that reason, sexual preference had been quite a fluid concept throughout Japanese history, from at least as early as 800 AD.

To make a point about gender fluidity being an integral part of Japanese culture, let me give you a bird’s-eye view of the history of sexual preferences of this beautiful yet queer, yet liberating yet absurd country. I will need to touch on a few facts that may be disturbing to some (they were to me) in doing so, so I suggest that those who want to keep their minds in a fully happy state today skip the parts with a disclaimer, or not read the article at all.

1. Two sexes in one was the preferred gender

The oldest existing historical record of Japan, Kojiki tells myths of the first gods and how they gave birth to the Japanese islands and its nature (Long story short, it says the Adam and Eve of Japan, Izanagi and Izanami, had tons of sex. Seriously.), and how they helped and fought with each other. Like Greek myths.

In one excerpt in Kojiki, the goddess Amaterasu-ōmikami prepares for battle against another god, and in doing so, she wears her hair and dresses like a man did back then. It is understood that ancient Japanese people believed that you become omnipotent when you bear both male and female strengths.

This philosophy affects Japanese culture even to this day. The Takarazuka Revue is a women-only musical group that has been in business since 1913, and it is known to have very loyal fans especially among women. The biggest stars of Takarazuka are actresses who play male roles – the “hero” – not the heroine. These female heroes wear mustaches and tuxedoes, and are literally worshipped by their fans for acting out the ideal man in the eyes of women.

The Takarazuka Theater in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan.

Half-serious sexual admiration of the same sex is not exclusive to Japanese women. Japanese men have a fair share, and there are pretty explicit historical records of men admiring other men. There are many poems and literature remaining from what the Japanese call the Heian Era (late 8th to 12th century), and a lot of them is about love.

And among them, not a few are about men feeling fascination about other men in a sexual context. In one of the oldest existing Japanese novels, Genji Monogatari (an 11th century novel depicting daily life of royalty back then, written by a female author), the handsome male main character Hikaru Genji sees a talented imperial officer and says in his mind something to the effect of “Oh how nice it would be if I could make him my girl and got in bed together.” Later on in the story, this imperial officer too sees Hikaru Genji and thinks to himself “Oh how splendid it would feel if I could make this boy my girl and slept together.”

Traditionally, Japanese people seemed to have considered beautiful and skilled persons sexually attractive regardless of their sex. Genji Monogatari is indeed fiction, but it is widely understood as a historical record of the typical life of Japanese royalty disguised in fiction.

There is a word in Japanese, 惚れる (horeru) which in essence translates to “I have fallen for him/her.” Still now, it is often used by men towards other men who have displayed extraordinary job skills or samurai-ish personality, apart from its more ordinary use by men towards women and by women towards men.

2. Bisexuality was semi-openly acknowledged

Now here comes the graphic part. If you think you will feel bothered by learning about bisexuality and child abuse of any sort, I advise that you skip this section.

Somewhat similar to Islamic cultures, there were restrictions on how men and women could interact with one another, especially in the lives of royalty and religious leaders.

  • Until the end of the 12th century, women in royal families were not officially allowed to meet men who were not kin.
  • It was not customary for women to take on positions like the secretary of rulers during the time of the samurais.
  • Male Buddhist monks were not allowed to have any sort of relationship with women until the late 19th century.

In 8th – 12th century Japanese royal life, it was not allowed for a man to see a woman outside his family. When there was a need for a man to speak with a woman of a royal family, she would sit behind a bamboo blind so that it would hide her face. The man could hear her voice and see her beautiful kimono, but could only imagine her face at best.

So if you were a young man back then, imagine how curious you would be about that lady. You want to know more about her, but your chances are limited. Imagine your sexual desires boiling without being able to let it out in any socially appropriate way.

So Japanese men in royal families back then dealt with their problems in the most absurd and disturbing way imaginable. So the next sentence is not for the weak-hearted. They would seduce a younger brother of the lady they are fond of, because he should resemble his sister’s facial features at least somewhat. By sleeping with the younger brother, they thought of what their idol might look like and tried to get a hint of what having sex with her might feel like.

Of course all this madness was probably more condemned than encouraged, but the fact that these sorts of episodes made it into a novel of high cultural importance suggests that the madness was informally acknowledged.

Also during civil war times of the samurais between the 15th and 16th century, regional rulers often had handsome young male servants serving as secretaries. It is said that these servants were very knowledgable of politics and warfare as they worked closely with their rulers. Also, it is said that some rulers required these talented young males to serve them in bed. During war, it was not unusual for these rulers to be away from home and their wives for months, and it was not customary for women to join the march to enemy territory. This might be why young males became the solutions to sexual desires of their masters.

In the world of Japanese Buddhism, like in any other form of Buddhism in other cultures, male monks were not allowed to get married or have any intimate relationship with women until 1872, when the Japanese government of the time decided they wanted to weaken the influence of the religion onto its people. This is another can of worms about Japanese culture which I discuss in my article about Japanese Buddhism, but anyway, the world of Buddhist monks have its own, extremely questionable stories regarding sex.

So sex with women was not permitted among Buddhist monks until the 19th century. But of course sexual desires are hard to control. Plus, many people who shaved their heads to become monks back then did so for the purpose of attaining an easier way of life – they were not taxed and were able to free themselves from the many restrictions of Japanese society which put family first and required individuals to make sacrifices in turn. There were many monks who you wouldn’t consider a plausible adult.

So the Japanese Buddhist world found a lawfully appropriate but ethically wrong solution. And please do not read the next sentence if you are weak-hearted. Some temples hired young boys with skins as smooth as women as sex objects to relieve the sexual desires of male monks. It was not until the 17th century that society in general collectively started disapproving this kind of child abuse. Like many other countries, child abuse is considered a serious offense now in Japan.

So hundreds of years ago, Japanese men had a lot of restrictions on sex, and therefore tended to seek for “the next best thing.” There are in fact many historically important novels depicting male-male relationships of these sorts actually developing into serious love.

The Japanese idea of considering sexiness and beauty to be traits that are held regardless of gender combined with the strict restriction on heterosexual sex seem to have led to Japanese people in the past having an open mind towards bisexuality.

3. Bisexuality was the driver of entertainment

So here’s another part of Japanese culture that the weak-hearted should not know: how Kabuki got its start.

Kabuki is solely performed by male actors, but at the very beginning, it was a performance art invented by a female dancer named Okuni at the start of the 17th century. She dressed as a man and performed songs and plays about seductive exchanges with women (who were other actresses, dressed as women). Okuni and company’s Kabuki was an instant hit among urban Japanese people back then, and so prostitutes mimicked it at their venues.

Basically, prostitutes performed Kabuki as a show for wealthy merchants and samurais where they pick their partner in bed for the night. The government intervened as it thought it would corrupt public morals and banned what is now called Onna-Kabuki (literally translates to Female Kabuki) in 1629. So women were not allowed to perform Kabuki anymore.

SO, what the Japanese did was provide “the next best thing.” Young, beautiful boys with bangs (only boys who have not come of age had bangs because adult males all shave them) performed Kabuki, and yes, they were also available for the night. They performed Kabuki by day, and performed sex for wealthy customers by night.

And of course there were top stars (usually young boys playing female roles) who got lots of followers, and those diligent followers started murdering each other (because pretty many people still carried around samurai swords) due to jealousy and anger for sleeping with their favorite actor. The government intervened and banned what is now called Wakashu-Kabuki (literally translates to Young Male Kabuki) in 1652.

But after the ban of Wakashu-kabuki, a seriously major industry, economic activity of the city of Edo (the old name of Tokyo) visibly declined, and so people pleaded the government to take back the ban. The government then allowed Kabuki to be performed only by male actors who had shaved their bangs.

But, the practice of prostitution persisted, and the top Kabuki actors continued to please their customers sexually after the show. Sex with customers was even considered good for the actor to learn how to act like a woman. So again, all this is not exactly homosexuality or maybe not even bisexuality. I can only say for sure that sex was quite a fluid concept for Japanese people back then.

4. “Beautiful” homosexuality in women’s minds

Unfortunately I’m in no way specialized in this area because I am a heterosexual male, but I thought I should point out a modern representation of gender fluidity among some Japanese women.

Dragon Ball, Naruto and One Piece – all those globally popular anime are based on the original manga comic books with the respective titles, and each episode of the manga is published weekly on a comic magazine called Jump, which has traditionally targeted young boys and men. So what comic magazines do girls read?

There are a few comic magazines featuring mangas about heterosexual love, dating and female heroes fighting evil. But what’s interesting is that from as early as the 70s, there has existed a genre of mangas targeting women, called BL, which is short for “Boy’s Love.” So basically, it’s manga that tends to be about beautiful males falling in love with each other and ending up having sex, and female fans get all excited anticipating the escalation of forbidden love between their favorite heroes.

These fans are supposedly heterosexual females, but they enjoy seeing or imagining sexual intercourse between males. There is a term for them – “Fujoshi 腐女子” which literally translates to “rotten women.” This is a term Fujoshis themselves labeled onto themselves, which clearly suggests that they know their hobbies are not socially plausible. But they love it so much they cannot stop. That’s how passionate they are about BL.

So the point I’m trying to make here is that traditionally, the Japanese concept of gender and sex has been… all over the place. It makes us wonder if the binary male-female classification most people are used to is really the most accurate way to look at gender.

Japanese people tend not to seem very expressive or sexually active, but now you know what may be going on in some of their minds.