Talking about (a)sexuality in Japanese

(This is a submission to the February 2013 Carnival of Aces, which is about language and communication.  You too should submit!)

After I wrote about herbivore men, a couple of people in the comments section of The Asexual Agenda were asking about words (specifically Japanese words), and so I figured I would make a separate post.  Then I got sidetracked by other things, but since this month’s Carnival is about wordswordswords, I figured now was as good of a time as any to finish this thing up and post it.

Anyway, let’s talk about sexuality-related words in Japanese.

We’re going to have to take a trip back in time to look at some HISTORY.  Let’s go back to the Tokugawa era (1603-1868), i.e. that time Japan tried to have a class system and isolate themselves from the rest of the world.  In the Tokugawa era, homosexual behavior was not at all uncommon–in fact it was socially sanctioned and even encouraged…but only in certain contexts.  In monastic and samurai communities, there was a practice called nanshoku (男色), in which older men engaged in sexual relationships with their younger (sometimes pre-pubescent) subordinates.  This was usually a complementary relationship to a heterosexual marriage, not either party’s primary relationship.  As you can probably tell, nanshoku was not particularly similar to what we in the West would think of as homosexuality now, especially since both parties in nanshoku were expected to remain within rigid gender roles–the younger partner often cross-dressed and was expected to be the “woman” in the relationship.  If you can read kanji, you can probably tell that there aren’t any “love” or “sexuality” words in the characters that make up nanshoku; the first character means “man” and the second means “color” or “lust.”  Nanshoku wasn’t considered a sexual orientation, per se–it was a socially sanctioned practice intended to reinforce hierarchical relationships and engender loyalty in men who would be working closely together.

Anyway, like many other things that were originally restricted to the upper class in that time period, eventually the wealthier merchants picked up nanshoku, which led to a boom in boy prostitution.  Gang violence and civil disorder arose, which meant that suddenly the authorities weren’t so thrilled with nanshoku; while it had previously been a way to reinforce the preexisting hierarchy, now it was causing all sorts of turmoil and disorder.  Additionally, Western sexology was finally coming into Japan, which meant that Japanese people were reading the “homosexuality is icky” writings (which, unfortunately, influenced their mindset, since Western values were seen as “more civilized”).  So that was basically the end of nanshoku.

Anyway, fast forward to the Meiji Restoration (1868)!  I could talk about the Meiji Restoration endlessly, but really all you have to know about it right now is that it was a time of great political, social, and technological change in Japan.  For the purposes of this post, one of the most important things that happened was that women’s colleges started opening, and with them, the first stories of female homosexuality began to circulate.  Homosexual behavior in colleges wasn’t anything new; male homosexuality was not uncommon at male-only institutions of higher education, but was usually written off as “youthful exuberance.”  Interestingly, this “female homosexuality” often resembled what we would call a Boston Marriage or a queerplatonic relationship rather than a lesbian relationship–these women were often in intensely emotional romantic or platonic relationships with each other, but it wasn’t always clear that they were having sex with each other.  (In fact, at least in the sources I’ve read, their INTENSE LOVE is what is emphasized, rather than any hanky-panky they might or might not have been getting up to.)

Anyway, these stories made a big splash in the media for a variety of reasons.  For one, the Meiji government was pushing a policy known as “good wife, wise mother” (良妻賢母); essentially, this policy argued that the reason to educate women was so that they could become good wives to men and wise mothers who would raise boys to become patriotic and loyal citizens.  So here you have all these women who A. aren’t super interested in becoming wives and mothers and B. would really like to become life partners with each other and live free of male influence, which is TERRIFYING to a patriarchal society.  Additionally, there were several highly publicized double suicides, in which one or more of the women in the relationship would have their parents arrange a marriage for them, and then the women would kill themselves rather than being separated.

So, what does this have to do with anything?  Well, the media response to these women’s relationships was actually where the word for homosexuality–同性愛–came from.  If you can read kanji, you’ll know that this word literally means “same sex love,” with the character for love (愛) being an intense, earth-shattering, world-changing sort of love.  This is the love you have for your soulmate, not, say, for your favorite TV show or for your friends or for that guy you just got a crush on.  And (here’s the interesting part) it’s not necessarily a sex-linked love.  Which makes sense, given the intensely emotional nature of the relationships the term was coined to describe.

So now we have an obsolete word for homosexual acts and the most commonly used word for homosexuality being related to an intensely romantic/platonic rather than overtly sexual relationship.  Oh, hey, and then all the other sexuality-related words are derived from the word for homosexual, so heterosexual (異性愛) is “different sex love” and bisexual (両性愛) is “both sex love” and pansexual (全性愛) is “all sex love.”*


Post-WWII, Japan started importing a lot of the American sexuality terms, but by that point queer culture was pretty well established in Japan, and…didn’t really resemble American queer culture all that much!  In fact, Japanese queer culture was much more divided than American queer culture for a variety of reasons (many of which had to do with the comparative lack of legal oppression of GSRM people–homosexual behavior, cross-dressing, and even homosexual prostitution were not (and are not) illegal, nor was there any sort of religious condemnation of homosexuality).  So the Japanese queer scene was composed of a variety of very specific subcultures without any sort of overarching cohesion.

Anyway, Japanese people started using loan words borrowed from English to mean…not exactly the same things as in English!  For example, ゲイ (gei) is derived from “gay,” but refers to either effeminate gay men or people who we in the States would refer to as straight transwomen.  ホモ (homo) is derived from “homosexual” and refers to masculine, straight-passing gay men.

So since I’m an asexual blogger, let’s get back to asexuality.  There are (if you didn’t already guess) two sets of words to refer to asexuality.  One set are English-derived loan words and one set are kanji words.  So you have アセクシュアル** (asekushuaru–derived from “asexual”) and 無性愛 (museiai–literally “no sex love”) on one hand, and ノンセクシュアル (nonsekushuaru–derived from “nonsexual”) and 非性愛 (hiseiai–literally “no sex love,” just with a different first character) on the other.

What’s the difference between these two sets of terms?  Why do you need two terms for asexuality anyway?  Well, one refers to romantic aces (nonsekushuaru/hiseiai) and one refers to aro aces (asekushuaru/museiai).  (What do the greyromantic and wtfromantic aces do?  I…am not entirely sure.  If you happen to know, you should tell me!)

Now, this may seem like a pretty strange way to divide up the asexual community, but if you think about it in terms of where previous sexuality-words came from and the connotations existing sexuality-words have, it makes sense.  First off, since Japanese sexuality-words more closely resemble English romantic-orientation-words, it makes sense that some people would feel the need to differentiate between people who don’t love any sex and people who may love*** but don’t sexuality-word-style love.  Having such precise terms to distinguish between aro aces and romantic aces also makes sense in the context of the post-war history of very specific queer subcultures.  Of course, dividing aces up by romantic orientation doesn’t really make sense in terms of, say, activism work or petitioning for legal reform, since aces are already such a small percentage of the population without dividing them up further.  But looking at it from a historical and cultural context, it makes sense.

Interestingly, when I have talked about asexuality to my Japanese friends, all of them have immediately jumped to the conclusion that all asexual people are aromantic.  After all, if you are looking at the kanji, that’s a reasonable conclusion!  (Compare to the reaction of the English speakers, who generally tend to assume that being asexual means you don’t have sex–which makes sense given the history of sexuality-words in English!)  In fact, the only Japanese-speaker who immediately guessed that asexuality had nothing to do with romantic attraction was a friend of mine who is a native Chinese speaker (but also speaks fluent Japanese and pretty good English, because she is amazing like that).  I’ve always wondered if there’s some sort of different connotation in Chinese for those characters (hey, Chinese speakers, want to help me out here?) or if she just has incredibly good intuition.

Anyway, that’s what I wanted to say about words.  (This was basically an excuse to talk about Japanese history, but shh, nobody can know.)

*You might notice that sexuality in Japanese is sex-linked and not gender-linked.  I’m not actually sure there’s a kanji for gender (which is normally written as the loan-word ジェンダー), which makes sticking it in compounds pretty complicated.

**Alternate spellings include エイセクシュアル and Aセクシュアル.

***The word I see used most often to differentiate between sexuality-word “love” and romantic love is 恋愛, which, ironically, contains the sexuality-word “love” as the second character.

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
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30 Responses to Talking about (a)sexuality in Japanese

  1. Sara K. says:

    As a non-native speaker of Mandarin…

    In Mandarin 愛 (which is pronounced ài) does not necessarily refer to earth-shattering love. It *can* be used to refer to earth-shattering love, but it can also be used to say ‘I love watching movies’, actually, 愛 is used in various different compound words, such as 熱愛 and 疼愛, which have various different meanings.

    The Mandarin word for ‘homosexual’ is 同性戀, which refers to 戀愛 (liàn’ài), which roughly means ‘love’ in the sense one would say ‘A is in love with B’ in English. Since every Chinese-speaking society is heteronormative, 戀愛 is assumed to refer to mixed-gender relationships unless otherwise specified, and there is the idea that if a female and a male are alone together and not family, they are going to have sex (since there are old expressions such as 孤男寡女, I don’t think this can be blamed on European influence), so 戀愛 does carry sexual connotations. Traditional Chinese-speaking culture however has no trouble conceiving of sexual relationships which are not romantic.

    It’s hard to discuss Chinese attitudes towards non-normative sexualities because they vary by region and historical period. And I am at a loss when it comes to discussing aseuxality / aromanticism in Chinese. What I can say is that Chinese-speaking cultures generally put romantic relationships lower down on relationship hierarchy than family relationships, which is why many of the ‘love’ stories I’ve read revolve as much around, if not more around, child-parent and sibling-sibling relationships as romantic relationships. In other words, the most important thing is to make babies, and as long as that happens, romantic/sexual orientation is not so important, as long as deviance is not made public, which could embarrass the family. It’s worth noting that in Chinese-speaking communities, it’s generally the Christians who are the most anti-GSM, and that other religious groups either don’t care very much or, in the case of some Buddhist sects, support GSM people.

    I hope this is helpful, but again, I’m not a native speaker of Mandarin (or any other kind of Chinese).

    • queenieofaces says:

      Interesting! In Japanese the “love” of “I love movies” would be either 好き or 大好き, depending on how much you loved those movies. 愛 can be used in compounds in Japanese that change the connotations of the word (like 友愛, which is, as you can probably guess, platonic love), but I’ve never heard it used to refer to anything other than love for people (usually people who are very close to you, like friends, family, or your significant other).

      Japan used to have a much more family-centered culture, but a variety of factors (rise of the nuclear family, movement for “love marriages” rather than arranged marriages, etc.) have taken some of that pressure off, so most love stories these days more resemble Western love stories than the sort of family-centric love stories.

      And, yep, that “as long as you make babies you can do whatever you want behind closed doors” attitude also exists in Japan. Thus people getting seriously freaked out by women who refused to do the babies and marriage bit.

      • Sara K. says:

        Oh, Chinese-speaking cultures have been influenced by Euro-American civilization too, but at least in Taiwan, the ‘family first’ attitude still seems largely intact. There are nuclear families, but there are also still many families which are non-nuclear, and even the nuclear families tend to be more closely intertwined with their relatives than most middle class nuclear families in the United States. While arranged marriages have pretty much gone away, most people still think the family should have some input, and ‘love’ is not as emphasized as it is in US middle-class marriages.

        Chinese societies have a long tradition of women becoming Taoist nuns (道姑) or Buddhist nuns (尼姑), and unlike in Catholicism, female-only monasteries without any men in the hierarchy exist, so that is one traditional avenue for women who are not interested in the marriage-and-babies track. And I haven’t encountered any opposition specifically to female-female bonding (that said, I am not an anthropologist/historian/etc, so take this with a grain of salt). For that matter, the two most popular deities in Taiwan, Guanyin and Matsu, are both unmarried females. Well, it might be more accurate to say that Guanyin is genderqueer, but she is usually depicted in female form.

        In traditional culture, two people of the same generation who are emotionally close are like siblings, and will probably refer to each other as sister/brother, so such relationships would probably be seen through the lens of sisterhood rather than romance or sex.

        This is getting long, so just I’ll point out that I’ve written a bit more about family vs. romance in Sinophonic culture here:

        I also find Albert Dalia’s comment about the Tang swordswoman vs. the Confucian swordswoman interesting (you have to go to the section about ‘Bride with White Hair’ to find the comment):

        • queenieofaces says:

          You raise a really interesting point about unmarried female role models, because there aren’t many of those throughout Japanese history. In religion, you have Kannon (the Japanese name for Guanyin), but she’s most commonly associated with childbirth and motherhood. You have Amaterasu, but although not that many people talk about her male-kami-she-has-babies-with, she does become a mother (and then a grandmother to the founder of the imperial line). As for historical figures, the most famous empress is remembered for nearly collapsing the government (she gets blamed for a lot of things that weren’t really her fault, but she also made some kind of awful choices). There were Buddhist nuns, but they aren’t really talked about that much (except, you know, by my classmates). There’s Himiko, who was queen of Japan and also amazing (I may love her a little), but we have so little information on her. So in that sense, I think China has a lot better female role models–I’ve never run into the Japanese equivalent of The Talented Women of the Zhang Family. It’s an interesting thing to think about!

          • Sara K. says:

            The two most significant female rulers of China were Wu Zetian (who was the only one who was an ’emperor’ and not merely a consort), as well as Dowager Empress Cixi. Whereas CIxi is known for ruining imperial China, Wu Zetian reigned during the peak of the Tang Dynasty, and is now most famous for having had more than younger, attractive men as sexual partner at the same time. She’s a bit like Catherine of Russia. However, there are other significant female royal figures – the Tang dynasty in particular had a number of influential princesses (based on what I know, the Tang Dynasty seems to have been a relatively good time to be an aristocratic woman in imperial China). I recently visited a museum exhibit dedicated to King Wu Ding and Lady Fu Hao – while Lady Fu Hao was his wife and had kids, she also was a priestess and led large armies, and was apparently very active politically.

          • Sara K. says:

            Sorry for the double comment, but I forgot to add that nuns (particularly Buddhist nuns) are definitely present in society, at least in some places. I often see Buddhist nuns walking around in the street, and one of the most influential Taiwanese women of the 20th century, Cheng Yen, is a Buddhist nun. Buddhist and, to a lesser extent, Taoist nuns also appear quite a bit as characters in popular fiction set in imperial China.

    • Eponine says:

      Yeah, I think 爱(the simplified version of 愛) in Chinese is roughly equal to “love” in English. It can be used to describe many kinds of love and form many compound words, like 爱好(hobby), 爱国(patriotism/love for one’s country), 母爱(mother’s love), etc. But when the character 爱 stands alone without context, it’s likely to imply romantic love.

      Traditionally Chinese culture emphasizes family more than romantic relationships, but now the society is more and more Westernized, like in Japan. Romantic love has been an important element in Chinese pop songs, movies and TV shows too. But there’s still a fair amount of traditional residual, e.g. most people think marriage and children are things you have to have in your life path, and some still treat marriage as a business-like thing: “It’s just about finding a companion to live your life with. Love can be developed over time.” (Which I agree with, but love should be developed before marriage, not after.)

  2. Siggy says:

    This post was so fascinating, Queenie! I hadn’t imagined how big an effect language could have on asexual communities.

  3. Eponine says:

    Oh, I just thought about another thing (although not strictly about sexuality): In Chinese we don’t have two separate words corresponding to “sex” and “gender” in English. The direct Chinese translation of “sex” and “gender” are both “性别”. If you have to distinguish the two concepts, you can say “生理(biological)性别” and “心理(psychological)性别” respectively, but these expanded terms aren’t common in everyday use. I speculate that the lack of separate “sex” and “gender” terms in Chinese makes Chinese speakers less aware of non-binary gender identities. Speaking from personal experience, I never give much thought to my gender identity. I was born as a female, so I say I’m female no matter I’m asked about sex or gender, although I don’t feel particularly feminine and I don’t care about gender roles. Being “female” only means having XX chromosomes to me, but it seems to mean a lot more to many English speakers. But then again, it’s just a speculation. Some English speakers on AVEN also say they identify as male/female because they were born as such, so I don’t know how big a part language plays.

    • Sara K. says:

      It also occurs to me that it’s worth pointing out that 性 doesn’t just refer to ‘sex’ as in ‘which chromosomes someone has’, it also refers to act of having sex (in fact, the Mandarin word for ‘sex’ as in ‘people have sex with each other’ is 性交).

      However, in my experience, Chinese speakers are even less direct about talking about sex than English speakers, which I find rather impressive in a way. I cannot recall any instance of Chinese speakers using the term ‘性交’, instead they almost always use indirect ways to convey the meaning. That said, when talking in English instead of Mandarin, I find that Taiwanese people suddenly become a lot more direct about talking about sex (the act, not the chromosome thing). Whether it’s because they don’t know how to say it indirectly in English, or they simply feel more comfortable being direct when using a foreign language, I don’t know.

      • Eponine says:

        Yeah, normally I say ‘性行为'(sexual behavior) instead of ‘性交’. Other common expressions include “做爱”(make love) and “上床”(go to bed), depending on the context. I think ‘性交’ is equivalent to “intercourse”. Maybe it’s a bit clinical for everyday use. (Like in The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon always says “intercourse” or “coitus” rather than just “sex”, lol.)

        But I do agree I’m also more direct when talking about sex in English. 🙂

        • queenieofaces says:

          Huh, that’s really interesting! 性交 is also used in Japanese for “sexual intercourse,” but it’s really only used in academic texts and some of the religious texts I read. (Shinto: really not scared of talking about sex.) In everyday speech, most people just use derivations of the verb “to do” (する or やる) when they’re talking about sex, or go for セックス (sekkusu, obviously derived from English). I’d say that in my experience, ignoring the fact that I tend to hang out with very sexually open people in the States, Americans and Japanese are equally likely to talk about sex around me. I remember my Japanese host mum out of the blue wanting to know why Americans were so scared of talking about sex all the time, and declaring it “unhealthy and dangerous” for kids not to know how their bodies worked.

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  5. Rose says:

    Seconding Siggy, this is absolutely fascinating and I’d love to hear more of your history and language nerding. I now want to research how cultures’ perceptions of sexuality are affected by their language…
    How is 愛 pronounced? It’d be interesting to use as a sort of loan word because we don’t really have a word for that earth-shattering love.

    • queenieofaces says:

      Aw, thanks!
      愛 is pronounced ai (if you don’t know the Japanese phonetic system, it’s pronounced basically the same as “aye” and “eye”). One of my friends once came up with a really good single phrase translation of the word, but I am inevitably blanking on it at the moment (I think it was something along the lines of “epic love”?).

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  17. Yuki says:

    I was in the middle of a conversation with a native Japanese person through Skype when I had to mention gender and sexuality. Well this is in lieu with our common interest for the Japanese commercialized homosexual male love stories (boys love) which were originally targeted for female audiences, but both of us were males.

    I’m surprisingly a panromantic asexual. I’d be okay with whatever gender for a romantic partner, but I really am asexual (although you can partially attribute it to my avoidant personality disorder). I have accidentally used 無性愛 instead of 非性愛, apparently because I was juggling the conversation, and trying to get references, and my panic disorder curtails me of my ability to speak properly, all the more that I have to speak Japanese when I barely could make it. For this knowledge chiefly unavailable in dictionaries, thank you. The (jisho) dictionary writes asexual as 無性, which obviously meant asexual reproduction in certain animals, plants and bacteria. I finally know what to say next time.

    With regards to 愛 as a Kanji… well, a recent accidental discovery of mine was this. The “Kan” in “Kanji”, written as 漢, is the same character for China’s Han dynasty, somewhere 7th to 9th century AD if I remember correctly? It was at that time Chinese characters were “imported” to Japan. Not that the accuracy matters, but centuries of evolution and deviations between two civilizations/cultures will totally explain why 愛 in Chinese (pardon, it will apparently be Traditional) is versatile, while 愛 in Japanese could chiefly be about -philia, familial, and/or love with romantic and sexual features, which is still because much of the kanji usage have been imported from Mandarin. We can probably attribute it to their culture, where romance uses 好き more. Well their three notable levels of love do exist: 好き (like, infatuation, romance), 恋 and 愛.

    I do not know if my opinions were sound in the immediately preceding paragraph; nonetheless, I want to really say that to correctly label myself as “nonsexual” instead of “asexual” was very helpful. It’s like I rebuilt my identity. Thank you very much for this entry!

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