Publication Details

Mark McLelland, Japan's Queer Cultures, in Theodore and Victoria Bestor (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Japanese Culture and Society, Routledge, New York, 2011, 140-149.


When reflecting on the history of “queer” or non-normative, non-heterosexual sexual relations in the Japanese context, it is important to consider that same-sex sexuality, particularly as practiced between men, has only comparatively recently come to be considered unusual and been consigned to the pathological side of a “normal”/”abnormal” divide. During the Edo period (1603-1867) there was no normative connection made between gender and sexual preference because all men, whether samurai, priest or commoner were able to engage in both same- and opposite-sex affairs. At the time, men’s same-sex relationships were governed by a code of ethics described as nanshoku (male eroticism) or shudō (the way of youths) in the context of which elite men were able to pursue boys and young men who had not yet undergone their coming-of-age ceremonies, as well transgender males of all ages from the lower classes who worked as actors associated with the kabuki theater. As well as being a conspicuous social reality, these relationships were widely represented in the culture of the period in art, literature and on the stage.