When you think of samurai, what comes to mind? Fierce, highly skilled warriors? Epic sword fights? Kick ass armor? Tom Cruise? Well maybe that last one was closer than any of us ever realized. An abundance of evidence, according to at least one Japanese TV show, indicates that during the Edo period when samurai thrived, the most common type of revenge killing these warriors engaged in was over gay lovers. Samurai were as skilled in man love as they were in sword play.
Was every samurai gay? Of course not. But it’s almost the opposite of what you’d think of being gay today where a minority of people, or one in 10, whatever the statistic is, applies. It was quite the opposite. Rare was the samurai who didn’t partake in such a relationship as having a younger, gay lover was almost basically a facet of samurai lifestyle by this period. How, you ask? A history lesson, as gleaned from this site which detailed the show for those of us who don’t speak Japanese.
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If you gloss over history and look at any societies that permitted master/slave relationships you’re going to find homosexual relationships. That unbalance of power, one person owning another, seems to always lead to that kind of exploitation. It’s not a romance by any means, but it’s where things started in Japanese society where the ruling class would have servants and, you know, things happen.
In the 15th century, things started happening for the samurai. By the 16th century, generals at war made it a custom to keep pages on hand, generally young males and by now you can guess why. They weren’t just fetching coffee and donuts. This was a common practice but obviously not everyone was on the bandwagon.
When the Warring States Period ended and everyone wasn’t constantly trying to kill everyone else, it would have been a reasonable time to end the practice of having pages on hand for war-time sex since you could just as easily wander back to town and say hi to your wife as there was no battlefield pressure or need keeping you at the front line. Despite that, the practice kept happening because by then people just liked it.
By this time it was no longer a master/slave kind of exploitative relationship as the parties were closer to equals, although apparently it was still more often than not a younger, inexperienced man with an older, saltier veteran, so to speak.
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Having a special man-friend was just the way of the world for samurai by the Edo period, up through the 1700s when it made its final and fatal evolution. The balance of power shifted one final time, and basically it became a full-fledged romantic entanglement, which is seems to ironically be the thing these relationships were trying to avoid on the battlefield when they first started. Simple, exploitative sex in war let you focus on your job and not worry about someone you loved. The Edo-era Samurai lost that memo and the result was a whole lot of samurai killing each other’s’ gay lovers and revenge killing each other for doing it.
With love triangles, Fatal Attraction type madness and double homicides running rampant, something had to be done. Various lords began to ban the practice and in time it simply faded from style like bell bottom jeans or Google Glass. And now the idea is less socially acceptable in Japan than it is in America. My how the tides do turn.
So next time you’re watching The Seven Samurai remember, one of those guys was probably awfully lonely.