Japan is a country whose unique customs and traditions will surprise you. One of the most noticeable aspects is that of sexuality. In fact, carnal pleasures have occupied an important place in the history of the country, some practices of which are well known today. We think in particular of wakashudo, which enabled samurai and monks to have intimate relationships with young adolescent men – a practice that is fully explained in our dossier on samurai. In this article, we invite you to explore sexuality in Japan through three different prisms: religion, marriage and the emperor’s concubines.
Sex and Religion: The Rules of the Tachikawa-Ryu School
The Tachikawa School founded by Priest Ninkan is based on Shingon Buddhism, which was one of the most important Buddhist schools in Japan in the 12th century. The latter was exiled to the city of Tachikawa, which gave him his name. In his approach, Ninkan is based on the principles of Shingon Buddhism: using energy to control cosmic and supernatural forces and then attaining spiritual awakening through rites. The school of Tachikawa agrees with her except that she attaches great importance to sexual energy and thereby adheres to the precepts of tantrism, and especially right-hand tantrism.
As such, sex was an important part of spiritual and religious life, beyond its simple reproductive function. Tantrism perceives the world in a dualistic approach: It would have arisen through the union of a man (Yang) and a woman (Yin). This duality is therefore concretely materialized through the physical practice of sexual rites. One of the flagship texts of the Tachikawa School is known as the Sutra of Secret Happiness – the Sutra (Commandment) of Secret Happiness – which contains general teachings on sexual practices. It is interesting how these are described there with a poetic or even metaphorical vocabulary. Here are some examples:
The Dragon Flower Assembly: male ejaculation Diamond lacquer: female ejaculation Fulfilling all oaths: one of the 48 ritual positions The magical Dharma jewel: the clitoris The lion’s cry: orgasms
One passage from the text clearly expresses the importance of sexual relationships:
To experience great happiness, a man and a woman must unite. Liberation can only be achieved through the act of sexual love. The sexual relationship between a man and a woman is the Buddha’s highest activity. Sex is the source of intense pleasure, the root of creation, necessary for every living being, and a natural act of worship.
This excerpt summarizes the basic principle of the teachings of the Tachikawa school: Buddhatva (“fully awakened” level corresponding to infinite compassion, wisdom and liberation) can be reached and experienced through sexual acts between two motivated partners. His followers believe that forgetting yourself and your ego that occurs during the act leads to spiritual awakening and then to revelation at the time of orgasm. Make love, not war.
Polygamy, consanguinity: marriages like no other
At the time of the imperial establishment of power – the Asuka period from the 6th to 7th centuries – polygamy and blood-related marriages were widespread in princely and imperial families. It was also possible to marry siblings as long as they did not have a mother in common. As an example, Emperor Tenmu married the daughters of his older brother (Tenji). One of his daughters eventually followed him and became Empress Jitô. His own son, Prince Kusakabe, meanwhile married one of Tenji’s daughters, his own aunt. A happy mess!
Until the Heian period (12th century), another form of marriage was practiced in high families: the tsumadoi-kon, which describes a marriage in which the woman continued to live with her parents. It was then for the husband to visit her and the maternal family raised the child. If he was a polygamist, he would repeat the operation in the house of each of his wives. Only when he had achieved high social and financial status could he build his personal home and invite his various families to live there. Holy roommate!
the concubines: the crazy story of the emperor’s mistress
Concubines are an integral part of the Japanese monarchy. At first sight lovers, they were also called metake: a nickname that recalls their role, since it means “borrowed uterus”. It’s easy to understand that feminism was still a foreign word! The concubines were chosen from among the nobles and gathered in the ooku – the private domain of the palace where they lived together. Even beyond the concept of carnal pleasure, they were the guarantors of the continuity of the imperial lineage. Kenneth Ruoff, historian, points out in his book The People’s Emperor that almost half of Japanese rulers were born to concubines.
Such a phenomenon can be explained by several factors. First, a high child mortality rate among members of the imperial clan, combined with low fertility. In fact, of Emperor Meiji’s 15 children (from 1852 to 1912), only 5 reached adulthood. And we understand why: between the very young age of the spawners – between 13 and 15 years! – the “holy” side of the newborn (doctors were not allowed to operate) and the damage caused by consanguinity, the future heirs to the throne had little chance of survival.
the painful life of the Sokushitsu
Sokushitsu – which means “second wives”, another name for concubines – did not lead the simplest life. As real everyday helpers, their existence was dedicated to that of the emperor and even went so far as to participate in his toilet or even to help him get dressed. This “career” was not without its dangers: for these precocious workers who were employed from puberty onwards, childbirth could prove fatal. A miscarriage or even infertility meant humiliation for these women. Of the 9 concubines of Emperor Meiji, 2 died in childbirth and 4 could never become pregnant. Those lucky enough to reach adulthood were fired at 30.
Total control was exercised over the lives of the concubines: it was, of course, up to the first lady of the court to decide who was on duty, and thereby regulate access to the emperor’s bed. They also had to force themselves to give up their maternal rights. Mostly surrogate mothers, their role was to immortalize the imperial descendants. A decision that we imagine to be particularly painful.
sono sachiko, the last of the concubines
Sono Sachiko gave 8 children to Emperor Meiji, half of whom died. What made her stand out was the fact that she traveled almost half a mile by train to reach him at headquarters in Hiroshima, where he was in the middle of peace negotiations with China. Even Empress Shoken – the emperor’s official wife – viewed her positively! She was considered an enlightened and brilliant person: a rare occurrence for a “simple” concubine. The tradition was finally banned in 1898 and Sono Sachiko died in 1947 at the age of 80. To learn more about the fascinating existence of geishas, don’t hesitate to discover these 8 surprising facts!