What’s wrong with sex?
Nothing; it’s wonderful: “Young women melt men’s hearts with red and powder and songs and smiles… Ah! … A date in a boat on the waves is equivalent to a life of delicious encounters.
Thus the courtier poet Oe Yukitoki (955-1010) celebrated the asobi (women of pleasure) of his day. Their boats plied the rivers of the port cities and the poets paid homage to them.
“Their voices stop the clouds that float in the valleys,” wrote Oe Masafusa (1041-1111), another delighted court poet. Historian Janet Goodwin brings traffic to life in “Selling Songs and Smiles: The Sex Trade in Heian and Kamakura Japan” (2007).
The Asobi were singers, dancers and sex performers of the highest standard, to whom the greatest arbiter of taste and public morality bestowed the highest praise. “His vigor in soliciting lovers,” observed courtier Fujiwara Akihira (989-1066) of a fictional, but presumably realistic asobi, “his knowledge of all sexual positions … his mastery of dragon flutter and tiger walk – all are his endowments.
Many men – women too – in the centuries of war and tense peace that separate us from those ancient songs and smiles must have wished to be born into that terribly blessed little chain of historic space-time known as Heian period (794 -1185). Sweet were his manners, gentle his manners, his many and varied pleasures – only for courtly nobility numerically tiny, true; the 99 percent of the baby population was considered barely human – but for the very privileged few, life was, or at least could be, good, maybe never better.
What’s wrong with sex? Nothing, and yet Heian’s permissiveness is a historical aberration. Overall, people love sex, but societies frown on it. The ancient Hebrews gave it its due, but only for reproduction. We were to “be fruitful and multiply”. Sex for pleasure – “fornication” – was criminal, often capital.
The first Christians feared sex, despised it. They anticipated its extinction in the kingdom of heaven. Here on Earth, said Saint Paul, “I would like all men to be like myself” – celibate. Impossible, as he knew – and so, “If they can’t contain, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn. Marriage was a for lack of better.
Confucius, not envisioning a kingdom of heaven, was more tolerant of earthly passions – venturing, however, to this gentle admonition: “I have not yet met the man who loves virtue as much as he is. beauty in women. Oe Yukitoki, the pleasure-loving courtier quoted above, paraphrases the master as if blaming himself: “Why don’t we take our hearts so fond of making love and embark on the way of the love of wisdom?
Heian nobles married – that is, they recognized certain limits on sexual freedom – but Heian marriage was such a vague and shapeless arrangement that virtues like loyalty and vices like infidelity hardly seem. definable. “Elite society,” Goodwin notes, “tolerated a wide range of sexual relationships and behaviors. Male-male relationships, male promiscuity, and female prenuptial relationships were well within the limits of acceptable behavior.
Women could inherit and bequeath property – another historical aberration. Moreover, “neither making their bodies accessible to the public nor accepting compensation in exchange for sexual services automatically stigmatized women in the sex trade … There was no sharp contrast between ‘whore’ and ‘honest woman’ like one could have found it in contemporary European Christian societies. “
How did old Japan escape the shackles that bound so many other civilizations? His mythological birth was auspicious. Japan was born free – born of the sexual act, of sexual joy, of sexual innocence, of innocent pleasure. The primitive deities Izanami and Izanagi are like two shy teenagers, bewildered by a rush of first love. How to express it? They don’t know what to do. Like all of us, they are learning. Their initial awkwardness smoothed out. Izanagi begets, and Izanami bears, the Japanese islands and a myriad of gods and goddesses. Sex was more than fun, it was sacred. The Asobi were more likely to be worshiped as shamans than damned as whores.
It couldn’t go on – or could it have? It lasted a very long time – 400 years. Inevitably or not, the ease of courtiers gives way, when the going gets tough, to the armed camp. For centuries, samurai warriors had lived apart, looked down upon as hardy boors. They bided their time. Their hour has come. They grabbed him. Heian collapsed. On its ruins stood the Kamakura period (1185-1333). The love song is dead, the war cry has sounded.
It was a sexual revolution in reverse – from freedom to coercion, from relative equality for women to stifling oppression. A warrior society is almost patriarchal by definition. Sexuality was no longer just a private matter. The thirteenth-century chronicle “Azuma Kagami,” in a few words quoted by Goodwin, shows us why: “At dusk, a young bride suddenly entered Kiminari’s gate. It must be said that, barely visible in the moonlight, she was of perilous beauty. For some reason (maybe because she was dangerously beautiful?), She aroused Kiminari’s desire. In any case, they’ve already spent a few nights together. It is a motive for murder.
Murder breeds murder, which breeds war, which breeds chaos when motivated by sex instead of the cardinal samurai virtue that justifies war and everything in between – loyalty. Heian’s permissiveness was no longer lasting. Laws have evolved to eradicate it. “Those who have sex with another man’s wife,” one states, “will confiscate half of their property” – a distant echo of Biblical injunctions against fornication. This dampened the passion, at least the erotic passion, which over time gave way to the passionate quest for a good samurai death.
A “motive for murder”? Not for courtier Heian. Not for Genji, the eponymous hero of the 11th century court novel “The Tale of Genji”. Cuckold as he had cuckolded others, including his father, the reigning emperor, Genji is hurt but understanding: “It was all very unpleasant. But he wouldn’t say anything. He wondered if his own father had known for a long time what was going on and hadn’t said anything.
This concludes a two-part series on Heian-Kamakura Japan. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu”, is an anthology of the best stories from The Living Past.
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