Shogun: Fact and Fiction (III) — Homoeroticism in an Honor-Shame Context

shogun 1In the last post we looked at the theme of love in James Clavell’s Shogun, and saw that it was about duty and attachment more than affection, just as it was for ancient Jews and Christians. We turn now to homoeroticism. What parallels do we see between medieval Japan and the ancient Mediterranean?

The issue is addressed at a memorable point in the novel (in chapter 20). The English pilot John Blackthorne has just been granted an audience with the future Shogun, Lord Toranaga, who then departs and leaves him in the care of a few guards and ladies, in particular the lady Mariko, his interpreter. Conversation turns to matters of pillowing (sex), about which Blackthorne is very embarrassed, but Mariko and the ladies are concerned that he isn’t getting enough sex and so offer to send him a woman or indeed many women. He grows increasingly uncomfortable by the bluntness and lack of delicacy, and Mariko misconstrues his lack of enthusiasm as a preference for boys.

“Oh! Perhaps – perhaps you would prefer a boy?”


“A boy. It’s just as simple if that’s your wish.” Her smile was guileless, her voice matter-of-fact.


“What’s the matter?”

“Are you seriously offering me a boy?”

“Why, yes, Anjin-san. What’s the matter? I only said we’d send a boy here if you wished it.”

“I don’t wish it!” Blackthorne felt the blood in his face. “Do I look like a God-cursed sodomite?”

His words slashed around the room. They all stared at him transfixed. Mariko bowed abjectly, kept her head to the floor. “Please forgive me. Here some men want boys sometimes. I foolishly presumed that your customs were the same as ours.”

The samurai leader, Kazu Oan, was watching angrily. He was charged with the barbarian’s safety and with the barbarian’s health and he had seen, with his own eyes, the incredible favor Lord Toranaga had shown to the Anjin-san, and now the Anjin-san was furious. “What’s the matter with him?” he asked challengingly, for obviously the stupid woman had said something to offend his very important prisoner.

Mariko explained what had been said and what the Anjin-san had replied. “I really don’t understand what he’s irritated about, Oan-san.”

Oan scratched his head in disbelief. “He’s like a mad ox just because you offered him a boy?”


“So sorry, but were you polite? Did you use a wrong word, perhaps?”

Homosexual practices were widespread in medieval Japan and entirely respectable, just as they were in the ancient Mediterranean, particularly Greece. In Learning from Shogun, Henry Smith, often critical of Shogun‘s portrayal of Japanese culture, acknowledges that on this point Clavell gets it right, noting further that homosexuality was particularly esteemed as training for samurai warriors, again comparable to the ancient Spartans:

“Although in general homosexual love was merely accepted without censure among the samurai, one does find in certain instances a positive and idealistic justification of homosexual practice as useful training for a warrior. A homosexual relationship was seen as a sort of tutorship in Bushido, with the younger lover imitating the older in the cultural and martial arts, much as among the warriors of ancient Sparta. In particular, such relationships were considered invaluable for teaching the virtue of loyalty, and samurai lovers generally proved dependable comrades in battle, loyal vassals, and trustworthy bureaucrats.” (“Consorts and Courtesans”, p 112)

Medieval Japan, in fact, is probably the closest analog we can find to the ancient Mediterranean with regards to homoeroticism. Or at least to the ancient pagans. What about the Jews and Christians?

There is no uniform view of male homoeroticism in the Judeo-Christian bible (and it is studiously silent on the question of female homoeroticism, depending on how one reads Rom 1:26). There are texts from the Holiness Code of Lev 18:22 and 20:13, which speak of one who “lies the lying down of a woman” — probably referring to men who “take it up the ass” — and demands that both the penetrator and the penetrated be put to death. Paul echoes this in Romans (1:27), affirming that men who engage in homosexual activity “deserve to die” (Rom 1:32), but before this also makes an unprecedented and ambiguous remark about women who “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural” — which could refer to women who either “like to be on top” of other women or “take it up the ass” from men. Clearly there is a strand of Jewish tradition, which an apostle like Paul affirms and goes further, that is hostile to homosexual practices and/or anal intercourse.

Of course, the existence of a regulation like Lev 18:22 and 20:13 doesn’t mean that reality always conformed to it. There is the well-known case of Jonathan and David (I Sam 18:1 and II Sam 1:26), where the latter speaks of the former’s love to him being “greater than the love of a woman”. Jonathan’s “delight” in David (I Sam 19:1) recalls Shechem’s earlier “delight” in Dinah (Gen 34:19), where the same word (kaphets) refers to sexual delight, and his asking David to “go out into the field” (I Sam 20:11) evokes the place where lovers go when they want to be alone (as in the blatantly erotic Song of Songs, 7:11). Jonathan and David may have shared the same kind of relationship as Achilles and Patroclus, and it’s no accident that their love occurs in the context of “comradeship in arms”. In the ancient Mediterranean, like medieval Japan, homoeroticism was especially taken for granted in military contexts. That still leaves the question as to why Israelites eventually developed taboos against homoeroticism, to be followed (at least in some circles) by later Jews and Christians.

The answer hinges on purity. Homoeroticism, like incest and bestiality, became viewed as morally impure to the extent it was seen as almost coterminous with idolatry (certainly Paul is leveling his diatribe against the pagan faction in Rome, reminding them how their godless heritage convicts them). Many scholars emphasize that in honor-shame cultures, the only thing offensive about men having sex with men is when it involves men of equal status, thereby forcing one of the males into the passive role reserved for women, boys, or men of lower social class. That’s true, but it’s not the full story. The Holiness Code demands that the “macho” penetrator be put to death as much as the “effeminate” one who takes it up the ass. And it’s not just the two men who contract uncleanliness, but the whole land of Israel. Purity laws (whether ritual, like regulations for corpse preparation and menstrual blood, or moral, like the one under consideration) were designed to keep Israel separate from the “pollution” of unholy Canaan. In the case of Lev 18:22, the prohibition follows that of 18:21, which forbids worship of Molech, who had a fertility goddess consort named Ashtoreth; in pagan shrine prostitution, anal sex was viewed as an offering to the goddess. This background likely accounts for the origins of the fierce taboo against Israelite men who engage in the “lying down of a woman”. It was, in a word, idolatry.

It remains significant that aside from Lev 18:22, 20:13 and Rom 1:26-27, the bible has nothing to say about homoeroticism (in I Cor 6:1, malakos refers to the “soft”, or men who “pretty themselves up”, often for heterosexual as much as homosexual exploits; and arsenokoites refers to some form of sexual exploitation too, though again not necessarily homosexual). The Holiness Code is a strand of Israelite tradition, and Paul is one apostle. Any “homophobia” on the part of early Jews and Christians had little to do with sexual ethics in any case, and a western prude like John Blackthorne could hardly have been reared in a culture that produced the Song of Songs or esteemed a character like David. The texts of Lev 18:22, 20:13 and Rom 1:26-27 later became co-opted by western sexual ethics, just as the virtue of love became understood in terms of affection more than duty.

In the next post we’ll deal with the tricky relationship between loyalty and treachery.

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