This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

The Meiji period (1868-1912) was a defining moment in Japanese history for reforming the nation’s society and economy to compete with that of Western countries. The Meiji Restoration was a movement spearheaded by government officials, which prioritized the “modernisation” of Japan by abolishing the previous feudal Tokugawa shogunate and changing existing social, economic and political structures. However, it also served to suppress and erase cultural themes such as male homosexuality that were popular throughout traditional history, especially during the height of the preceding Edo period. In striving for modernity, such themes were often deemed “unspeakable” and did not coincide with the clean and respectable image that officials were aiming to create. As such, male homosexuality became largely invisible and any public representation of it was highly scrutinised or subsequently criminalised.

Tolerance towards male homosexuality was directly influenced on a political level by the state during the Meiji period. Economic reform included the adoption of the 1868 Civil Code which complimented the growing demand for family law. It allowed a clear line of succession for inheriting private property and companies to be established. Similar to capitalist models in the United States and other Western countries, a conjugal heteronormative family structure was considered the most suitable for this economic climate. The family unit became linked to the national identity of Japan, and as such, sexuality became a strictly defined parameter. This highlighted a decreased tolerance towards male homosexuality in Japan as it contrasted with what the Meiji government defined as “modern” or beneficial for the nation’s reform. 

Furthermore, the government’s regulation of popular print media and entertainment actively censored depictions of male homosexuality. For example, more dynamic and erotic representations of male sexuality often thrived in genres of kabuki theatre, where young men acted in female roles, following the shogunate ban on female kabuki actresses from 1629. However, many of these pre-Meiji texts and plays were either banned or re-written to conform to the constraints of fūzoku (public morals) which deemed what was publicly acceptable within state discourse. This was enforced by the 1869 Publication Ordinance (Shuppan jōrei) which allowed works to be vetted for inappropriate content and censored before being published. 

Similarly, pre-existing artwork that featured undesirable themes such as homosexuality or erotica was also socially stigmatised. During the Meiji period, the transfer or public display of such illustrations was deemed a violation of the 1880 Criminal Law and merited legal punishment. Therefore, although male homosexuality still persisted throughout the Meiji period, it could only exist in more private spaces outside of public display or consumption; a stark contrast to previous eras in which such sexuality was normalised and culturally visible.  

By Isabel Fountain