In many of the references to nanshoku in the Tokugawa era, men were not always depicted as exclusively homosexual. Men of this period rarely saw nanshoku and joshoku (“female colors” or “female eroticism”) as categories that one had to solely participate in. Lesser samurai often behaved in this manner, and their bisexual escapades were often exciting topics for popular kabuki plays. In the plays, ronin (masterless samurai) were embellished as highly amorous warriors who were sexual with both men and women.
Tsuuchi Hanjuro, Yasuda Abun, and Nakada Mansuke’s play Narukami Fudo Kitayama zakura (Kitayama cherry-blossoms of Narukami and Fudo) provides a humorous example of samurai bisexuality. As the samurai hero Danjiro waits in an antechamber to meet a local lord, the retainers of the household quickly attend to him. He is first greeted by a beautiful boy named Hidetaro, who Danjiro immediately begins to converse with. During their conversation, Hidetaro mentions that he does not know how to ride a horse. Danjiro makes a suggestive offer to teach a boy how to properly ride a horse, but the boy quickly panics and dashes away from the samurai. Shortly following, the woman of the house arrives with tea for Danjiro. The uncultured samurai uses this opportunity to make several sexually vulgar jokes using the word “tea.” Disgusted, the woman of the house hastily removes herself from his presence. “That’s two cups of tea I’ve been denied!” he cleverly quips to the audience.
Of course, this sense of open bisexuality was not limited to the samurai shown in kabuki plays, but was also extended to commoners in popular literature. Often characterized as young freethinkers, these men would not only seek out other men for pleasure, but were open to heterosexual encounters. An Osakan man in one humorous anecdote intended to go to a male brothel, but was persuaded by a companion of his to try and attend a female brothel instead. While the man was unsuccessful at making it to the female brothel, he had still considered the option. There are also other literary portrayals of men being emotionally attached to both sexes. A widower consoles himself with a boy after the death of his wife; a man loses his wife and children because of his infatuation with another man. Much of these genres were written from the point of view of men.
But perhaps erotic art captures the prevalence of bisexuality best in the Tokugawa period. It was during this time, the idea of a bisexual ménage-a-trois was considered the ultimate fantasy of many men. Hishikawa Moronobu’s print Patterns of Flower and Moon shows a sexually excited man with young man and a woman. The older man stands, having just withdrawn himself from the woman, and he prepares to insert himself in a positioned male youth. Written on the artwork, the older man declares, “The one Way isn’t so exciting, but there’s nothing more enjoyable than having both kinds of sex!” As the title might suggest, the woman’s vagina is the “flower” and the youth’s bottom is the “moon.”
Of course, one must not ignore the existence of those who were strictly homosexual. Referred to as nanshoku-zuki (nanshoku enthusiast), these men rejected heterosexual behavior. Occasionally, these men were depicted as misogynists, or rather bluntly, “woman-haters.” Like in Ming-Qing literature, and even in English Augustan literature, any contact with the female sex was considered revolting to nanshoku enthusiasts. An illustration from Ihara Saikaku’s Nanshoku okagami depicts three women passing by an enthusiast’s home, who then immediately shuns them away. “Such filth!” the man in the painting is shown saying. “Disgusting! Get out of here!”
Interestingly, early popular stereotypes of exclusive nanshoku were linked to effeminacy. While men of this period who engaged in nanshoku behavior were considered to be rough and powerful earlier on, the cultural refinement of this behavior, especially in certain major cities like Kyoto, were effeminizing and softening its masculine image. The city of Kyoto, being an important cultural capital at the time, encouraged the public to speak elegantly; a manner some deemed more suitable for women than men. Still, male prostitutes were encouraged to speak in this manner, as male Kyoto prostitutes were highly sought after. However, this behavior was not limited to only prostitutes, but to its patrons as well.
While bisexuality was an openly celebrated part of Tokugawa life, exclusive nanshoku interests were stereotypically deemed as effeminate and viewed negatively. Men who solely had sex with boys or young men were considered weak, and in some extreme cases, filthy and unkempt. While likely untrue for most enthusiasts, it was a prevailing hostile image that men were to avoid.