The ‘Indescribable Fragrance’ of Youths

Sir Edmund Walker Collection/Royal Ontario Museum
Kitagawa Utamaro: The Young Man’s Dream, from the series Profitable Visions in Daydreams of Glory, circa 1801–1802. In this woodcut, Ian Buruma writes, a wakashu,or ‘beautiful youth,’ is ‘dreaming of sleeping with a famous high-class courtesan (the dream is revealed in a cartoon-like bubble over his head), while a young woman solicitously wraps a jacket around his shoulders lest he catch a cold.’

Lusting after pretty teenage boys was not considered shameful in premodern Japan. Experienced older women did it. Young women did too. Older men indulged in it (as long as the boys were passive sexual partners). Adultery was not permitted, on the other hand, and it was unseemly for grown men to love other grown men. But the love of older men for young boys, a practice called shudo, literally “the way of boy love,” was considered, especially during the eighteenth century, and notably among samurai, to be a mark of erotic discernment.

Ihara Saikaku (1642–1693), the great literary chronicler of the demimonde in Osaka and Kyoto, wrote a famous book called The Great Mirror of Male Love, in which he celebrated shudo:

Even if the woman were a beauty of gentle disposition and the youth a repulsive pug-nosed fellow, it is a sacrilege to speak of female love in the same breath with boy love. A woman’s heart can be likened to the wisteria vine: though bearing lovely blossoms, it is twisted and bent. A youth may have a thorn or two, but he is like the first plum blossom of the new year exuding an indescribable fragrance. The only sensible choice is to dispense with women and turn instead to men.*

There is no evidence that Saikaku himself preferred men to women. The contrary seems to have been true. He adored his wife so much that he decided to become a lay monk after her death. But to Japanese of his time sexual preference was fluid, more a matter of taste than of fixed identity. A cultivated gentleman could fall for the beauty of youths, even as he pursued young women with equal fervor. There were men, of course, who only liked males. They were known as onnagirai, “men who don’t like women.”

So the choice of beautiful youths, or wakashu, as the theme for an exhibition of Edo Period (1603–1868) art was inspired. For it tells us much, not only about the social mores of premodern Japan, but also about its aesthetic values. Shudo was as much a matter of artistic refinement, even connoisseurship, as of erotic fulfillment. A literary expert on this topic, Inagaki Taruho, wrote a famous book, published in 1973, entitled The Aesthetics of Boy Love. He explains, among other things, that only “members of a privileged class can understand the delights of boy love.” Cultivation of this taste demands a certain degree…

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