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

Jim Reichert

In the Company of Men:
Representations of Male-Male Sexuality in Meiji Literature

Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006, 296 pp.
ISBN: 0-8047-5214-1(cloth), US$60

reviewed by Rio Otomo

      As the shadows lengthened, the night sky was bathed in a gentle rainstorm and the air became perfumed with the fragrance of spring flowers. No longer able to restrain himself, Daizō clasped Sangorō's hand and extinguished the lamp. Even darkness could not conceal the scent of plum blossoms clinging to Sangorō's sleeve. As raindrops pattered outside the window, Daizō pledged his love anew with each caress of Sangorō's snow-white skin.[1]

  1. The night of passion described here can almost be a scene from Brokeback Mountain (2005).[2] Daizō and Sangorō, two beautiful young samurai, later died together in the losing battle of the Shōnai Rebellion in 1599, on the eve of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The story was performed as a lyrical ballad in the Satsuma region and resurfaced as a printed copy, Shizu no odamaki [The Humble Man's Bobbin], (1885) in the Meiji period (1868-1912) shortly after Japan started its rapid Westernisation. Jim Reichert, a romantic at heart, painstakingly traces the footprints of this narrative in the texts of Meiji writers who in turn recreated the same imagery in order to assert their own stance on the modernisation project. This nation-building project was tumultuous and often confusing in its directions, particularly for the former samurai class who initially took charge. For example, sexual desire was understood by the Meiji literati as the marker of humanity that Western literature (novels in particular) valorised in their pursuit of enlightened civilisation. And the object of that desire had to be a woman. Those who were resentful of the changes in the value system regarded this compulsory heterosexuality as an oppressive discourse which would weaken the homo-social strength inherent in their class. In that climate the hand-copied version of Shizu no odamaki was widely circulated among students and later serialised in a popular newspaper. The publication of this story was a political act motivated by the desire to reinvent a 'Japanese' masculinity when old values were felt to be under attack by the process of orchestrated Westernisation.
  2. Reichert does not fail to point out that the sensual atmosphere of two men's love affair conveyed in the above passage is de-eroticised by the following statement attempting to evoke the nobility of the samurai class: 'From that day forward, the two devoted themselves to the literary and martial arts appropriate for a warrior.' Thus, love romance and masculine 'virtues' are tied in the narrative. To undermine this link, however, Reichert mentions, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, that there is a report that this story was created by a Satsuma woman in her off-the-loom spare time. Although he does not pursue this topic of authorship, it is a wonderful story on its own. In Japan there are now a considerable number of women writers who create homoerotic stories re-featuring the pretty-boy characters of existing manga and anime for their own consumption.[3] Narratives that exclude women are thus sometimes another genre of women's erotic expression. The rumour of Satsuma woman notwithstanding, that is yet to happen in the spheres of Reichert's Meiji literature. What happened there instead was a different sort of gender panic.
  3. As Reichert meticulously documents, the binary oppositions of kōha (literally, the hard faction) and nanpa (the soft faction) shifted their attributions according to the context in which they were portrayed. Kōha youths were hard-working, nationalistic and enthusiastic about the text of Shizu no odamaki, hence the participants or the believers in nanshoku [male colours].[4] In contrast, nanpa youths were much concerned in having love affairs with women, who were mostly from the 'pleasure quarters,' and hence these men were delinquent in terms of serving the future of the nation-state. This logic was overturned in the texts which were written by reformists; kōha characters appeared in their stories to be the antithesis of modernisation, in short, representing an embodiment of the past. In either case homosexual imagery could somehow play a role in the construction of hyper-masculinity in the early days of modernisation, and beyond. The story was not presented as a product of nostalgia with a use-by-date. As Reichert rightly notes, the printed copy of Shizu no odamaki—the cover, the illustrations and the binding—convinces us that the story was already in 1885 a modernised narrative that tangentially followed a new trend, a romantic narrative that the public wanted to read. It seems that as long as the lovers' emotional upheaval was communicated well to the readers, the gender of lovers was not significant. In fact Reichert tells us a story of a Meiji writer who, in order to make his new novel more suited to the time, replaced a beautiful young man with a beautiful young woman as the object of the desiring gaze of the text. The gender panic represented in the texts written throughout the Meiji period carried the spectre of male-male love, even when its focus was seemingly settled into heterosexual romance.
  4. Incidentally, those familiar with the work of Yukio Mishima will have a sense of déjà vu, since he persistently returned to this fantasy—of dying together on a losing battle field—as the ultimate source of his creativity and, indeed, life story. Masaki Domoto, a playwright, recounts in his recently published memoir[5] that Mishima was obsessed with the image of two samurai performing a double-suicide and often made Domoto act the scene with him in private. This obsession resulted in Mishima producing and starring in the film Yūkoku [Patriotism] (1966), which is based on his novella of the same title (1961).[6] In this austere and yet erotic film, Mishima replaced the role of the younger lover with a woman. The same narrative eventuated in his actual seppuku suicide (i.e., by ritual disembowelment) in 1970 involving a young officer from his private army.
  5. Nanshoku [male colours] was a pre-Foucauldian term which did not involve subject formation. It had an implication of one's choice and taste, but not the formative element of personal identity. Through his reading of literary texts, however, Reichert manages to unfold the complexity of this seemingly flat terminology and rescue it from Leupp's somehow inescapable Orientalist gaze which was cast on pre-Meiji sexuality.[7] In the Company of Men may appear at a first glance difficult to approach for those who are unfamiliar with things Japanese. It is, however, equipped with the right levels of assistance such as concise explanations and translations of Japanese terms, which makes it possible to follow the discussions without being helplessly alienated by them. Reichert is at times so enthusiastic in conveying the whole cultural dynamic that readers who are only interested in general issues of gender and sexuality may feel overwhelmed. His habit of continual reiteration and rephrasing does not help, either. Quotes, for example, are always followed by his reading, though most of them are self-explanatory. But these features stem from his thorough scholarship and generosity. Reichert demonstrates overall a depth of knowledge in the genre, and as a result this book is filled with numerous thought-provoking and informative narratives.


    [1] Jim Reichert, In the Company of Men: Representations of Male-Male Sexuality in Meiji Literature, Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2006, p. 20.

    [2] The film was directed by Ang Lee and was based on Annie Proulx's short story (1997).

    [3] These are often called yaoi, a genre which is similar to a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy novels called 'slash fiction' in the US.

    [4] Gary Leupp explores this term in Male Colors: the Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan, Berkley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1995. See also Gregory Pflugfelder, Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950, Berkley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1999.

    [5] Kaisō: kaiten tobira no Mishima Yukio [A Memoir: Yukio Mishima in the Revolving Doors], Tokyo: Bunshun shinsho, 2005.

    [6] Yūkoku [Patriotism], Tokyo: Shōsetsu chūōkōron, 1961; film edition, Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 1966, available in English translation in Yukio Mishima, Death in Mid-summer and Other Stories, trans. G. W. Sargent, New York: New Directions Books, 1966.

    [7] Leupp, Male Colors, 1995.


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

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified 19 March 2008 1354 by Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright