THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Prewar attitudes toward queer sexuality in Japanese-language press


bioline_Greg RobinsonThis is the 16th year that I have had the pleasure of presenting my annual queer history column. I want to start today’s installment by acknowledging the 2020 online J-Sei 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 public presentation of the history of Japanese American sexuality, notably in the period before World War II, and featured a number of newspaper articles and other artifacts that broadened our knowledge of the past (full disclosure: I was an advisor to the exhibition). I have done my own research along similar lines, especially in studying attitudes toward LGBT sexuality in the Japanese-language press during the prewar years. Thanks to the Hoji Shinbun database at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, which offers digitized pages from the historic Nikkei press in both English and Japanese, I have been able to make some discoveries about the coverage of sexuality in the Issei press. (I remain grateful to Koji Lau-Ozawa and Chris Suh for their assistance in locating texts, and to Takako Day and Michiko Aramaki for translation work).

So far, I have located a dozen or so references to LGBT people in Japanese-language newspapers during the prewar era — a small but revealing corpus of sources. Those from the period before 1924 referred to events in the Old Country, reflecting the Japanese background of the immigrants. They also featured the poetic term nanshoku (aka danshoku) the same-sex love known among samurai in the Tokugawa period, and discussed most famously by Ihara Saikaku in his 1687 anthology “Nanshoku Okagami.”

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

The post-1924 references were more wide-ranging and ambivalent. An article in the Hawaii Hochi from 1931, which marked the only prewar use of the modern-day word dōseiaisha (a direct translation of “homosexual”), referred to gay literary critics such as Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde. Several years later, Hawaii Hochi reproduced a report from the mainstream press about an escaped felon who had raped an 11-year old boy. Meanwhile, Rafu Shimpo published several stories of nanshoku criminals and arrests, involving Japanese as well as non-Japanese. One article from 1934 told of a Japanese man in Kobe who had reportedly slept with 200 men in seven years. Another piece from 1938 reported the arrest in Berlin of the German Gottfried von Cramm, the world’s second-ranking amateur tennis player, who was rumored to be a nanshoku.

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

By far the most remarkable document on Issei views of homosexuality is the four-part series that ran in the Rafu Shimpo in September 1931, entitled “Beautiful Nisei Okama Boy.” (Okama, literally a “rice pot,” 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 beautiful 22-year-old Nisei male from Los Angeles who sold his body to white lovers, and whom the author of the article interviewed upon his release from jail (on an unstated charge). In the series, “Butterfly” described his life. The son of a family of prosperous grocers, he had turned 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 taking the female role — the author of the article stated that “Butterfly” sounded like a woman. In high school, he had gained a reputation as handsome and smart, and had 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 John discovered the three danshoku clubs in Los Angeles, he dragged “Butterfly” there to take his pleasure.

Now “Butterfly” worked in one of these danshoku clubs. He described his club as a private members’ club of about 150 members, all of whom were rich people, such as doctors, lawyers and actors. Rules were strict, and entry was restricted to those with recommendations from several existing members. In the club were beautiful okama boys from around the world, who made free use of its 18 private rooms. While they wore men’s clothes outside the club, once inside they put on women’s clothes, took women’s names, and were called “queens” — on Halloween night and Christmas Eve, they went out to dance halls in women’s clothes and flirted with men. If the boys were ever arrested, the club sent lawyers to bail them out. There were “marriages” celebrated in the clubs, with wedding rings exchanged.

“Butterfly” stated that he had five Japanese friends who also sold sex, but they all picked men up on the streets and did not work the clubs as he did. He noted that lower class okama boys met men in parks and had sex in their houses, in the street, or in public toilets at hot dog stands and baseball fields. “Butterfly” reported that he had toured California the previous spring and summer, and bragged that by the time he returned home, he had saved $1,700 from selling his body. He concluded that people could really not understand how good sex with a man was. Spring, he explained, was the season when he himself felt desire for men so strongly that he had to give himself an enema then to try to control his impulses. The series ended on a slightly somber note: The author asserted that “Butterfly” had little chance to change his life and find work as a musician, and wondered whether he was condemned to a future as a wandering nanshoku, risking prison or venereal disease.

Many aspects of this story remain unverified, and it may contain exaggerations or inventions. 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 in police raids) but has identified no such network of gay club facilities. Still, the number of details the story contained, and the fact that it was neither dismissed out of hand by the journal’s editors nor openly challenged by readers — and this in a community sufficiently close-knit that the identity of (say) any family of prosperous grocers would be known or easily surmised — suggests that “Butterfly” was not entirely fabricated.

Perhaps more important for our purposes is what the series says about Issei views of sexuality and of the Nisei. Already, some months before the editor of Nippu Jiji had complained of a “wave of eccentric literature” in vogue in Japan that denigrated 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 even if 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 engaging in sex only with white men, the article implies that Nisei are corrupted by American norms. Finally, by using the word okama to describe “Butterfly” and stressing his resemblance to women, the article presented him as emasculated, and thereby as 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 l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *