(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.”*
BUT WAIT. IT GETS MORE CONFUSING.
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.