Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006

Mark McLelland

Queer Japan
from the Pacific War to the Internet Age

Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, 256 pages;
ISBN: 0-7425-3787-0 (paper) US$36.95
ISBN: 0-7425-3786-2 (cloth) US$82.50

reviewed by James Farrer

  1. The history of homosexuality in Japan offers seemingly irrefutable evidence for the globalisation of sexual discourses in the modern era. From a feudal society in which male homosexuality was not only tolerated but virtually institutionalised among samurai elites, modernising Japanese in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century adopted western discourses of medicalised sexual deviance. Homosexuality became associated with effeminacy and psychological disorders, and older discourse of nanshoku, or male love, lost ground to terms from western especially German sexology. In the mid-twentieth century Japanese picked up on more liberal western understandings of same-sex relationships, and by the late twentieth century a small but visible gay rights movement had emerged with connections to the global queer networks centered in the US and other developed economies. A quick reading of this sexual history suggests that modernising Japan came under western cultural influence in the Meiji Restoration and has followed one-step behind western sexual movements through to the present era of a global queer movement.
  2. Mark McLelland's remarkably readable history of Japanese same-sex culture from the wartime era until the dawn of the twenty-first century succinctly and convincingly challenges this narrative of sexual globalisation, or westernisation, in the case of Japan. McLelland argues that Japan has developed a 'hybridised' sexual culture mixing western elements with traditional Japanese ideas. Without fully rejecting the case for western influences, McLelland carefully delimits the degree of these influences and points out how western terms were appropriated into pre-existing Japanese discussions of same-sex sexual relations. This is not merely a story of how modern western ideas of sexuality were 'remade in Japan.' Rather, McLelland provides a full account of how cultural entrepreneurs and homosexual individuals in Japan developed their own conceptions of same-sex sexual practices in the immediate pre-war and post-war era, borrowing from western terms and practices, but also reusing many ideas from Japan's own sexual traditions (including the discourse of nanshoku).
  3. One of McLelland's strongest objections to the westernisation narrative is the implication that Japan by following foreign trends is a laggard in the development of a public sexual culture. An empirically rich chapter on the immediate postwar decade shows that Japan in fact was very much 'ahead' of Anglophone countries in allowing an open efflorescence of popular gay and lesbian literature. Empirically, this is the richest section of the book, detailing the development of a market for 'perverse' ['hentai'] literature in the popular press of tabloid magazines dealing in 'strange tales.' Although McLelland could be accused of overly belaboring the degree to which Japan led the US and England in the liberalisation of a popular sexual press, he makes an important point that the ways in which 'perverse' sexualities were written about and categorised in Japan were unique and creative sexual cartographies that owed little to imitation of western publications. In particular, the frequent inclusion of depictions of same-sex practices along with various heterosexual 'perverse' practices in magazines aimed at a mixed audience confounds the heterosexual-homosexual and male-female divides in sexual audiences commonly assumed in western discussions of popular sexual culture. McLelland points to market diversification as one explanation for the decline in this general interest 'perverse' literature in the 1960s. But given the remarkably diverse and polymorphously 'perverse' sexual culture of the 1950s tabloids, we still may wonder why the market broke exactly along the heterosexual/homosexual divide in later decades.
  4. McLelland's chapters on developments in subsequent decades provide valuable insights into the changing nomenclature of same sex relationships in postwar Japan, the relationship between commercial entertainment and gay culture and distinctive features of the Japanese movement for public recognition of homosexual relationships. McLelland cautions particularly against an direct translations of 'borrowed' terms such as 'gei boi' (derived from the English 'gay boy'), pointing out that such terms often have taken on very different meanings in the Japanese cultural context. For instance, gei in post-war Japan long referred to an effeminate homosexual man associated with the world of commercial entertainment (entertainment often aimed at a straight spectator). Homosexual men outside this commercial entertainment arena, and particularly those who did not identify with the feminine persona of the gei boi, generally preferred the appellation homo In keeping with the critique of the 'westernisation' narrative in Japanese sexual history, the chapter on the development of a 'gay and lesbian consciousness' also emphasises the indigenous development of public homosexual spokespeople and publications in Japan. Although he traces the growth of connections to global gay and lesbian rights organisations in the 1980s and 1990s, McLelland is sharply critical of both foreign and Japanese authors who attribute Japanese consciousness of gay issue to contacts with western sexual rights advocates.
  5. McLelland's history includes materials on lesbian and transgender as well as male homosexual themes. He carefully distinguishes the lesbian materials aimed at 'straight' men from those aimed at 'women,' although at times these efforts at determining the 'real' gender of a particular columnist seem strained and at odds with the generally anti-essentialist message of the text. One also might question McLelland's decision not to include any discussion of the contents of contemporary lesbian websites because the opening pages state that men are not welcome to observe their contents. (One wonders if the people making these websites really intended to discourage scholarly inquiry and thereby limit student knowledge and interest, and if perhaps some research arrangement could have been made with the website's producers). Although the book's sections on lesbian public culture potentially strengthen the argument that Japan is not exclusively 'following' the West, these sections lack the detail and depth of the materials on homosexual men. The chapter on transgender lives provides a very well written and researched conclusion to the book that also serves to expose and challenge many of the essentialist notions of sexual and gender identity that are still prevalent in Japanese public culture. Despite the imbalance in the treatment of gay and lesbian cultures, the inclusion of both strengthens the book as a whole, especially as a potential text for undergraduate courses.
  6. Queer Japan is an important contribution to the history of gay, lesbian and transgender discourses. It is a corrective to versions of sexual history that describe non-western, or even non-American, societies as 'catching up' with the advanced sexual rights movements in the Anglophone countries. McLelland shows that westerners still have much to learn from contacts with contemporary as well as historical Japanese sexual materials. Although specialists will find the book light in its treatment of both western and Japanese 'theory,' the history is very well-researched and makes extensive use of original Japanese sources. Succinct and well-written, and available in paperback, Queer Japan is particularly well suited for undergraduate courses on Japanese society or the history of sexuality in general.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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