AS a university professor in Japan and a dabbler in its gay history, I must admit a certain fascination with the institution known as “nanshoku.” Literally “male colors,” nanshoku describes a wide range of Japanese same-sex relationships from ancient times up until the end of the 1860’s.
While in some ways similar to pederasty in ancient Greece, nanshoku consisted of many more dimensions, social codifications, and historical roots. It is also much better documented: in addition to woodblock prints depicting domestic and erotic same-sex scenes, entire books of nanshoku connoisseurship were written and distributed in popular culture with various classifications for tastes and potential clients in mind. Assuming one could pursue the pleasure within one’s social class or could pay the fees for services from professionals, being a shojin-zuki (a married man who dabbled) or an onna girai (literally a “women hater”) was not a point of contention. In fact, books such as the Nanshoku Okagami (or “Great Mirror of Male Love”) are fascinating not for their depiction of gay sex but for their acknowledgment of the critical role of same-sex relationships in defining contemporary ideas of virtue, pleasure, and social