Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 31, December 2012

Jeffrey Angles

Writing the Love of Boys:
Origins of Bishōnen Culture in Modernist Japanese Literature

Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2011,
ISBN: 978-0-8166-6969-1 (hbk), price: $US75.00, 302 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-8166-6970-7 (pbk), price: $US25.00

reviewed by Mark McHarry

      Ainosuke was at a loss for words. That was because he had learned one time what would happen when an Asakusa Urning tried to seduce you.
      —Edogawa Ranpo[1]

  1. Edogawa Ranpo (1894–1965) and Inagaki Taruho (1900–1977) were widely read in early twentieth-century Japan. Murayama Kaita's (1896–1919) works would prove influential among other authors. Writing the Love of Boys shows how they sought new ways to describe non-heteronormative sexuality in literature, and in so doing developed an aestheticism that would be taken up, in part, by boys' love.[2] Of the three, and in English, Ranpo's works may be the most anthologised, but his keen interest in male homoeroticism is not widely known, and the homoerotic writings of Kaita and Taruho perhaps less so. Jeffrey Angles situates their work in modernist Japanese literature, mainly during the Taishō (1912–1926) and pre-war Shōwa (1926–1989) periods. His book is a fascinating glimpse of male-male desire in literature at a time of cultural and political ferment in Japan, and well worth reading by anyone interested in Japanese modernism, Japanese homoeroticism, or boys' love.[3]
  2. Newly-developed western theories of psychology and a proliferation of newly discovered sex perversions gained currency in Japan during the Meiji period (1868–1912). Among their effects was the creation of new discourses of eroticism that attempted to supersede those which valorised age-discrepant relationships among males. Angles selected Kaita, Ranpo and Taruho as subjects partly because 'they were some of the most outspoken and prolific authors to deal with male-desire in Japan' during the interwar period (p. 16). He looks at their backgrounds and education, and their work and its reception, in describing how they developed representations of 'schoolboy innocence, acute aestheticism and almost "decadently" strong expressions of personal passion' (p. 2). In a concluding chapter, Angles examines how some of these tropes of 'romanticized expressions of schoolboy desire' (p. 1) may be seen in shōjo (girls) manga beginning in the 1970s.

    Edogawa Ranpo
  3. Born Hirai Tarō, Ranpo fashioned his pen name after Edgar Allen Poe and an old Tokyo district where Edo-period (1603–1868) merchant culture had not yet vanished. Often characterised as the master of Japanese detective and mystery stories, much of his fiction fitted into the ero-guro-nansensu vogue during late Taishō and early Shōwa,[4] and some featured what was then called perverse sexual desire (hentai seiyoku). In the 1920s and 1930s, his writing appeared in leading popular periodicals, and was republished as multi-volume sets (p. 14). Ranpo helped legitimate ero-guro's use in fiction by showing characters engaged in a type of curiosity hunting (ryōki) for the strange and unusual (pp. 111–12). While most of his protagonists were not themselves inclined to same-sex love, some evinced a fascination for it, closely observing others who were. In the novel Issun-bōshi (The dwarf), serialised in the mass-market daily Asahi shinbun in 1926 and 1927, Ranpo describes a scene in Asakusa, a popular Tokyo park and prime cruising ground—in Miriam Silverberg's words, 'the place where the erotic, the grotesque, and the nonsensical were in closest alliance':[5]

      Most of the people he saw were tramps looking for places to sleep, detectives, and uniformed police officers who made their rounds every thirty minutes rattling their sabers. There were also curiosity-seekers like Monzō. However, there was also a queer kind of person that did not belong to any of these groups…. When they met another person strolling on the dark path between the trees, they would look meaningfully into the other person's eyes or ask for a light, even if they already had their own matches (p. 119).

    In a passage about two men in their forties who meet one another in the park, Ranpo's description is detailed but distant, portraying the scene as odd, for example, with conjunctions such as 'strangely enough' leading a sentence. The effect, writes Angles, is 'almost like an ethnographer observing a foreign culture' (p. 120).
  4. In the novel Ryōki no hate (The fruits of curiosity-hunting; 1930), the scene is again Asakusa:

      The youth stared unflinchingly at Ainosuke. He was wearing spring clothes dominated by navy blue, and, in the same color, a tweed cap that resembled one someone might wear with a school uniform. Floating up from the darkness beneath the visor, which was pulled down far over his face, was a pale face with soft contours. He was a beautiful youth. Ainosuke…wasn't especially happy about being stared at, but he didn't feel especially displeased either (p. 121).

    When the lad spoke to him, '"Ainosuke was at a loss for words. That was because he had learned one time what would happen when an Asakusa Urning tried to seduce you"' (p. 121). Angles observes that Ainosuke, as Monzō before him, was 'not looking for sexual encounters with other men'; rather, they were 'curious to find out how it operates or eager to recall the cosmopolitanism of the past' (p. 123).
  5. During the 1920s and 1930s, Ranpo collected a vast amount of information about male-male eroticism, engaging in a 'lighthearted competition' for literary and historical references with a close friend, the writer and anthropologist Iwata Jun'ichi (p. 163). After the war's end, Ranpo argued that 'there were many "great masters of art and letters whose works cannot be fully understood" while unaware of the "psychology of same-sex love"' (p. 144). Despite this interest, he refrained from writing fiction that valorised it. Discussing in his memoirs his ero-guro novel Kotō no oni (Demon of the lonely isle; 1929–1930),[7] he concluded that writing about same-sex love '"in modern times for a popular entertainment magazine might be misguided"' given society's lack of interest in it '"other than when it appears in the context of writing about classical Greece, Rome, or the Genroku period.'" He noted that '"Because it was a detective novel I was to write, I was not able to write about this queer form of love as I liked"' (pp. 124–25).

    Inagaki Taruho
  6. Taruho debuted at age twenty-three with the delightfully fantastic tales collected as Issen ichibyō monogatari (One Thousand and One-Second Stories) published from 1923 to 1936. Its sharply written vignettes feature celestial characters such as the pugnacious Mr Moon who scraps with people on Earth. Known in English today primarily as an avant-garde writer of modernist fables, Taruho was published in journals such as Shinchō (New Tide) and Bungaku (Literature), earning a reputation for writing 'pure literature' (junbungaku), putting him on a more respectable plane than many mass-market authors.[8] Contemporary literary historians acclaimed him as a grand innovator of early Shōwa modernism (p. 15); Mishima Yukio went as far as to divide the period's literature into '"the world before Taruho and the world after Taruho"' (p. 16).
  7. Taruho also wrote for mass-circulation publications, including those marketed to women, such as Fujin kurabu (Housewives' Club), Fujin gurafu (Ladies' Pictorial), and Fujin kōron (Ladies Forum).[6] His 'R-chan to S no hanashi' ('The Story of R-chan and S'; 1924) was published in Josei (Women) the year after Issen ichibyō monogatari appeared. In it, the older student S fantasises about escaping with his younger friend R-chan to a secluded island; he daydreams about dressing and photographing the boy variously as a fairy-tale prince, a temple acolyte, and a pageboy serving his lord (p. 214). Though 'R-chan to S no hanashi' ranks among Taruho's most intimate treatment of adolescent male desire (p. 203), here and in his other stories, characters' relationships are 'never consummated through open expressions of affection or erotic attraction [but instead] move into a purely aestheticized realm' (p. 206). Taruho preferred it that way, chastising his friend, the poet and prose writer Takahashi Mutsuo, for 'soiling a pure and beautiful form of love' by depicting transgressive homoerotic acts (p. 29).
  8. He had a life-long fascination of modern technology and science (p. 197), employing motifs such as airplanes, city lights, and cinema in his work. He wrote that he used them to depict '"a taste of the momentary and of fairly-tale like transcendence"' along with '"a hint of emptiness."' It is '"the moment in time that is most genuinely likely to enter the human heart; the fairy tale represents the highest form of aesthetic literature, and nothingness represents the one path to…liberation"' from the mundane (p. 199). After 1945 he produced essays and books on the aesthetic implications and benefits of adolescent male-male desire, revising some for his book Shōnen'ai no bigaku (The aesthetics of the love of boys).[9] Published in 1968, it co-won the Japanese Literary Grand Prize the following year. Its argument is that an appreciation of adolescent males provides a way into 'the eternal, atmospheric, inspiring energy circulating around humanity' thereby countering a 'common assumption that male homoeroticism is nonprocreative and therefore nonproductive' (p. 232). In his last year of life he published a self-annotated deluxe edition of Ihara Saikaku's 1687 collection of male-male love stories, Nanshoku ōkagami: honchō waka fūzoku (The Great Mirror of Male Love).[10]

    Murayama Kaita
  9. Though he lived scarcely twenty-two years, Murayama Kaita's stories, poetry and artwork caught the imagination of Ranpo and other canonical writers. From his earliest efforts as a high-schooler producing handmade chapbooks, his paintings as a student at the Nihon Bijutsuin (Japan Art Institute), and his mystery-adventure stories, play fragments and diary entries, he was received as 'auguring a new era in personal expression' (p. 37) and books of his writings and paintings were republished multiple times after his death (p. 14). Ranpo considered him 'one of Japan's foremost voices of the grotesque' (p. 168) and adapted Kaita's motifs and plot devices for his own work.
  10. Angles compares Kaita to the young Arthur Rimbaud in seeing himself as 'a leader of a vanguard that would revolutionize' how his country's artists saw the world (p. 40). Perhaps his bravado exceeded Rimbaud's: in the surreal fantasy 'Bishōnen no Saraino no kubi' ('The Bust of the Beautiful Young Salaino'; 1914) written at age seventeen, a boy named Murayama Kaita fights Leonardo da Vinci for the love of the bishōnen (beautiful boy) Salaino. Angles compares the story to a surreal dream, 'anticipat[ing] a strain of hallucinatory literature (gensō bungaku) within Japanese modernism' (p. 78). Two years earlier, Kaita had fallen deeply in love with another pupil at his Kyoto school, the fourteen-year-old Inō Kiyoshi. Over the next few years he wrote hundreds of poems, many about Inō, others about bishōnen.
  11. Kaita's poetry plays with gender, such as juxtaposing courtesan vernacular with an aestheticised poetic language to articulate his own longing and sadness for a '"beautiful one"' for whom he yearns (p. 56), and, like other modern Japanese poets, he re-purposed classical imagery, such as associating a ruined garden with a man's emotional state instead of a woman's (pp. 53–54). He mixed traditional imagery such as a plum representing an adolescent male (p. 53), with symbolist motifs, vocabulary, and colour in contexts that moved poet Yosano Akiko to declare she believed him '"the first completely decadent poet to have been born in Japan"' (p. 64). From an untitled Kaita poem of 1913:

      Oh, this is the sound of pleasure, still not fading,
      In the dawn of a beautiful new world of poets . . . !
      The deep, ceaselessly trembling emotion
      In the windpipe of a male 'him'[11]

      Oh beautiful, decadent sound
      Of pleasure that shall never fade . . . !
      It may dissipate if we drink the bloodstained wine
      But it will come again, in the remnants of exhaustion (p. 63).

    Angles gives an exegesis of each poem, for example linking these verses to the influential symbolist poet Kitahara Hakushū's belief that a sensitive poet is '"enamored with the pleasure of barely audible music"', '"rejoices in visions"', and yearns '"for the red of putrefying decadence"' (p. 63).

    Boys' love
  12. Angles opens a new avenue in English-language boys' love scholarship by showing aesthetic connections between late twentieth-century shōjo manga and the works of Taruho, Kaita and Ranpo. One of these is Takemiya Keiko's crediting Shōnen'ai no bigaku for having given her the idea to create a work depicting thirteen-year-old Gilbert Cocteau's life in a French boarding school. Kaze to ki no uta (The song of the wind and the trees; serialised 1976–1984) is considered one of the shōjo manga foundational to today's boys' love. The other examples Angles offers date from the 1990s forward, when boys' love was such a large phenomenon that manga artists may have already been mining Meiji, pre- and early-modern works for homoerotic themes. There are non-Japanese influences, too: the movie Les Amitiés particulières (Special Friendships, 1964),[12] itself part of late nineteenth / early twentieth-century European male-male erotic discourses,[13] helped inspire Moto Hagio to create the best-selling shōjo manga Jūichigatsu no gimunajiumu (November gymnasium; 1971) and Tōma no shinzō (The Heart of Thomas, 1974).[14] Angles' findings are a pointer to further research, the more so given that some of the stories he discusses have been neglected in Japanese as well as in English-language scholarship.

  13. At the end of Taruho's 'R-chan to S no hanashi', S sets off for the military practice required of students, carrying a gun loaded with blanks. R-chan follows surreptitiously. On spotting him, S asks if he would like to shoot the weapon:

      The boy raised it awkwardly as if it were difficult to handle. He paused for a moment and pulled the trigger. BANG !! It was S's first shot in the battle, but it was not his hand but that of the boy he loved that had discharged it. The shot's sharp report echoed across the brown fields. A flurry of paper from the discharged gun settled over the two boys. A puff of white smoke that smelled of gunpowder floated over their heads (p. 215).

    A different act in a different time from current-day boys' love, with some surface parallels: a mostly female readership, a high-school setting, young male characters and their tenderness towards each other, falling paper as if it were falling cheery blossoms, and the symbol, at once potent and impotent, of a gun that 'discharges' only white smoke and paper compared to the half-hidden or obscured penises in boys' love manga. In both a climax, at once fruitless— blanks/an imagined (non-procreative) homosexuality— and productive as the characters in each genre try to form bonds. Taruho's scene is symbolically phallocentric, as Angles points out, but in my view it is a symbolism that differs from boys' love manga, some of which foreclose any notion of phallocentricity in their depiction of the protagonists fucking.[15]
  14. A few criticisms, although compared with what the book delivers, all are fairly minor. Censorship cast a pall over prewar Japanese modernity. The one detailed discussion about it is speculation as to words censored from four of Kaita's poems (pp. 70–73). Those unfamiliar with modern Japanese history may be unaware of the extent to which expression was constrained by state coercion and violence from the beginning of the Meiji period until after the regime's surrender. Also, the book lacks a timeline, which would have saved some back-and-forth to the index. Angles's dissertation,[16] on which his book is based, does have a timeline but the dissertation does not include Taruho's career. A somewhat greater concern is that Angles mentions, but does not discuss in any detail, Kaita's 'fleeting' attractions to women (p. 48), and his replacing, beginning in 1915, descriptions of the appeal of bishōnen with those of women (p. 104) in his poetry and diary. Angles also notes that Taruho's interests included love among adult men (p. 198) as well as women (p. 28). Writing the Love of Boys does not purport to be a literary biography, but even so, fuller treatment of their erotic interests would have been welcome.
  15. One measure of good criticism is the extent to which it interests the reader in its subject(s). Writing the Love of Boys had me speculating as to what Ranpo's characters might have said had they not been at a loss for words, and their author able to write about queer love as he liked. I wondered what paintings, poems and stories Kaita might have produced and how they would have been received, and tried imagining what Taruho would have made of his aestheticism's relation to boys' love, a literary genre in my view potentially liberatory, but perhaps less so, or not at all, in his.


    [1] Edogawa Ranpo, Ryōki no hate (The fruits of curiosity-hunting), in Edogawa Ranpo zenshū (The complete works of Edogawa Ranpo), Tokyo: Kōdansha, 1978–79, 25 volumes, vol. 4, p. 218.

    [2] Boys' love is a genre of homoerotic literature, generally by and for women, mostly in the form of manga and novels, that imagines one or more male characters, most often adolescent or young adults, in situations where they attempt to bond. It uses original characters and/or those taken from commercial manga, and it can comprise combinations of drawn and/or text-based works in an array of printed and electronic media. Homoerotically-themed shōjo manga became popular in Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and today boys' love is popular among females and some males in Japan, as well as in parts of Asia and the West. In English, yaoi (from the acronym for 'no climax, no point, no meaning') has been more commonly used among fans, and 'boys' love' in scholarly works. Other names used for the genre include: shōnen'ai, tanbi, and JUNE. My own observations of bookstores in Tokyo show 'BL' as a top-level category for manga and novels. Although I use 'boys' love' in this review, the reader should be aware of significant differences in the meanings of these terms in Japanese and English, as well as over time.

    [3] I follow Angles's translations and use of names.

    [4] Ero-guro-nansensu (from the English erotic, grotesque, nonsense) has been used then and now to characterise the first few years of the 1930s, especially 1930. (See Miriam Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 2006, p. 28.) Silverberg extended the phrase to cover the mid- and late-1920s, when it became widely used by mass media, into the early 1940s (ibid. p. 29). She wrote that it connotes an 'energized, colorful vitality' (eros), a 'culture resulting from such deprivation as that endured by the homeless and by beggars' (grotesquerie), and a vaudevillian 'boisterousness' that 'challenge[d] relationships of domination of one class, culture, or nation-state by an other' (nonsense) (ibid., pp. xv–vi). She also cited Takahashi Tetsu that it was 'dismissed by most as a decadent escape from the trials of the depression' (Silverberg, 'Constructing a new cultural history of prewar Japan,' in boundary 2, vol. 18, no. 3 (1991):61–89, p. 87, n. 34). Jim Reichert characterised ero-guro-nansensu as 'devot[ing] itself to explorations of the deviant, the bizarre, and the ridiculous' (Reichert, 'Deviance and social darwinism in Edogawa Ranpo's erotic-grotesque thriller Kotō no oni,' in Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 27, no. 1 (2001):113–41, p. 114). Mark Driscoll noted that 'nansensu' was commonly deployed with 'ero-guro' not until the late 1930s. (See Driscoll, Absolute Erotic: Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan's Imperialism, 1895–1945, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010, p. 170). As ero-guro-nansensu was used by some to identify and stigmatise activities seen in the way of a civilised social ethos, others used it to resist such notions (see Angles, Writing the Love of Boys, pp. 21–22) and defamiliarise institutions widely perceived as natural, such as the family (Angles, Writing the Love of Boys, p. 110). Ranpo was considered an exemplary ero-guro author, but in a 1930 newspaper interview, he rejected ero-guro's use of sensationalism, preferring what he saw as its original meaning of 'a sincere interest in sexual and unusual subject matter' (Angles, Writing the Love of Boys, p. 21).

    [5] Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, p. 47.

    [6] Ranpo, Edogawa Ranpo zenshū, vol. 4, p. 217, trans. Jeffrey Angles as 'The story of R-chan and S: a sentimental episode,' in Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913–1938, ed. William J. Tyler, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008, pp. 358–75.

    [7] Ranpo, Edogawa Ranpo zenshū, vol. 20, p. 201.

    [8] Issen ichibyō monogatari, trans. Tricia Vita as One Thousand and One-Second Stories, Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Classics, 1998. 'Pure literature': Gregory Pflugfelder, Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600–1950, Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1999, p. 305.

    [9] Inagaki Taruho, Shōnen'ai no bigaku (The aesthetics of the love of boys; 1968), in Inagaki Taruho zenshū (The complete works of Inagaki Taruho),Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2000–2001, 13 volumes, vol. 4, pp. 3–254.

    [10] The subtitle could be translated as: 'The Custom of Boy Love in Our Land.'

    [11] Nodobue, also slang for 'boyfriend'.

    [12] Les Amitiés particulières (Special Friendships, 1964), directed by Jean Delannoy. Paris: TFI Video and René Chateau Video, 2004. The movie was first publicly shown on 4 September 1964 in Paris.

    [13] Mark McHarry, 'Boys in love in boys' love: discourses west/east and the abject in subject formation,' in Boys' Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre, ed. Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry and Dru Pagliassotti, Jefferson, NC.: McFarland, 2010, pp. 177–89, pp. 179–81.

    [14] Matthew Thorn, 'The Moto Hagio interview,' in The Comics Journal, 269 (July/August, 2005), online:, site accessed 28 September 2012, paragraphs 6–18 under 'Boys' love'. Moto Hagio, Tōma no shinzō (The Heart of Thomas, 1974), Tokyo: Shōgakukan Bunko, 1995, trans. Matt Thorn as The Heart of Thomas, Seattle, WA.: Fantagraphics Books, 2012; Moto Hagio, Jūichigatsu no gimunajiumu (November gymnasium; 1971), Tokyo: Shōgakukan Bunko, 1995.

    [15] Mark McHarry, 'Girls doing boys doing boys: boys' love, masculinity, and sexual identities,' in Mangatopia: Essays on Manga and Anime in the Modern World, ed. Timothy Perper and Martha Cornog, Santa Barbara, CA.: Libraries Unlimited, 2011, pp. 119–33, pp. 126–27.

    [16] Jeffrey Angles, 'Writing the Love of Boys: Representations of Male-Male Desire in the Literature of Murayama Kaita and Edogawa Ranpo,' Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, 2003, online:, site accessed 30 September 2012.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 24 May 2013 1028