Hypersexualities in Classical Japanese Literature


A Review of Hyperfemininities, Hypermasculinities, and Hypersexualities in Classical Japanese Literature by Sachi Schmidt-Hori.

Sachi Schmidt-Hori’s dissertation examines the intersections between gender, sexuality, status, and power as represented in premodern Japanese literature. Focusing on constructions of gender-based ideals of women and men who occupied the center and the periphery of Japanese society, the dissertation provides valuable insights into the cultural capital that people living on the margins held in premodern Japan. Pairing six groups of characters into three categories, namely imperial priestesses and courtesans, highborn warriors and outlaws, as well as elite and “corrupt” Buddhist monks, this study argues that each of the pairs epitomizes hyperfemininities, hypermasculinities, and hypersexualities, respectively. Through an in-depth analysis of an extensive body of texts from a variety of genres, Schmidt-Hori concludes that “in a cultural/literary context wherein defiance merges with sexual attractiveness and/or sexual freedom, one’s outcast status transforms into a source of significant power” (Abstract). In other words, she demonstrates that within Japanese literature until the end of the fifteenth century, sex appeal and gender ideals were not necessarily related to economic and political powers.

The dissertation consists of an Introduction, three chapters, and a Conclusion. The Introduction provides a comprehensive overview of sexuality, gender ideology, and body politics from the eighth to the nineteenth centuries. It also explains the theoretical framework on which this study draws. Building upon William Labov’s socio-linguistic concept of covert prestige, that is the prestige of non-standard varieties to which some speakers aspire, the dissertation pairs it with its counter-concept, that is overt prestige, and proposes an analytical framework called bifacial structure of prestige. Elite classes, such as imperial priestesses, warriors, and Buddhist monks, represent overt prestige, whereas those living on the margin of society, namely courtesans, outlaws, and “corrupt” Buddhist monks, are constructed as possessing covert prestige. This analytical framework is applied to representations of hyperfemininity, hypermasculinity, and hypersexuality found in literary works from the tenth to fifteenth centuries. Within the bifacial structure of prestige, the dissertation convincingly demonstrates that covert prestige is not inferior to overt prestige. Each of the three chapters opens with a detailed historical overview of the cultural context related to each category of characters, then moves on to a survey of the images of each within literary texts, and provides an insightful analysis of each of the six groups.

Chapter 1 takes up literary constructions of imperial priestesses (saiō) and courtesans (yūjo) and argues that these two groups represent contrasting hyperfemininities. Examining the images of Princess Yasuko (Ise monogatari [Tales of Ise], ca. 947), Akikonomu and Asagao (Genji monogatari [The Tale of Genji, ca. 1008]), and post-Genji era imperial priestesses (Sagoromo monogatari [The Tale of Sagoromo, ca. 1060]), the chapter draws attention to the ambivalent constructions of royal priestesses. Until the early eleventh century such heroines are portrayed as desirable precisely because of their unattainability, while characters that appear towards the end of the Heian period (794-1185) tend to be depicted as attainable but lacking in sex appeal. Schmidt-Hori argues that rather than viewing this shift in constructions as a result of the decline in the status of aristocrats in the twelfth century, it is more reasonable to link such negative portrayals to the women’s unfamiliarity with the ways of love despite their advanced age. Having examined images of ideal femininity related to overt prestige, the chapter next turns to constructions of courtesans in Noh plays (Senju, Yuya, Hanjo, and Eguchi). Through a rigid analysis of primary and secondary sources, it shows “that among a number of social outcasts, courtesans were held in high regard within the mainstream society due to their cultural, aesthetic cachet” (p. 86). Although within Noh plays courtesans are constructed as wretched, Schmidt-Hori claims that their images are not influenced by the nature of their profession but are rather related to the courtesans’ female gender. Within this chapter, Schmidt-Hori concludes that literary works constructed women from both groups through dual images, thus presenting imperial priestesses as sacred virgins who were sexually naïve, and courtesans as sinful and forlorn, but at the same time charming and pious.

The next chapter turns to representations of masculinity of elite warriors and outlaws. Unlike the case of royal priestesses and courtesans, Schmidt-Hori states, it is difficult to draw a clear-cut line between overt and covert prestige with regard to hypermasculinity, because both groups stand out for their physical might, most frequently actualized through violence. The chapter draws attention to the competing ideals of masculinity in premodern Japan, namely those surrounding aristocratic and warrior cultures. The negative images of warriors in mid-Heian period (Genji monogatari), were superseded by positive portrayals toward the end of the period (Konjaku monogatari [Tales of Times Now Past, twelfth century) due to the rise of the military class. Elite members of the military class were no longer construed as “undesirable lovers” who had rustic countenances, but stood out for their warrior’s honor. The chapter further shows that during the early-medieval period geographical origin also affected the representations of warriors. For example, “eastern-type” warriors in Heike monogatari (The Tales of the Heike, fourteenth c.) are portrayed as lacking sophistication and absolutely determined to overcome their foes (Minamoto), whereas “western-type” warriors’ grasp of courtly culture put them on a par with aristocrats (Taira). The tension between these competing ideals of masculinity is resolved in the image of Yoshitsune (Gikeiki [The Story of Yoshitsune], ca. 1411), who is construed as a man of courtly sophistication and political power. The remainder of the chapter examines literary representations of outlaws, who used violence as a means of supporting themselves. The dissertation takes up images of outlaws in Buddhist didactic stories (Nihon Ryōiki [Record of Miraculous Events in Japan, 822], Shasekishū [A Collection of Sand and Pebbles, 1279], Uji shūi monogatari [A Collection of Tales from Uji, early thirteenth c.]) and secular anecdotal tales (Konjaku monogatari). Because of the educational nature of Buddhist tales, outlaws were constructed as the embodiment of “machismo, fearlessness, and defiance to authority” (p. 130) in order to underscore the power of Buddha. In secular tales, again defiance toward authority surfaces, and is closely associated with hypermasculinity. Contrasting outlaws with individuals who committed legitimized violence, Schmidt-Hori argues that “outlaws were not necessarily considered the most despicable people in society” (p. 130) but portrayed as manly, intrepid, and disobedient.

Chapter 3 focuses on Buddhist priests’ hypersexualities. It considers sexual acts of Buddhist monks emblematic of hypersexuality, because they are viewed as the gravest sin one who had taken holy vows could commit. The chapter opens with an introduction to the content of the Buddhist Vinaya, the extensive set of rules that monks and nuns had to follow, as well as the context of its transmission to Japan. Turning to the images and roles of chigo (young acolytes), who were Buddhist monks’ most common object of desire in premodern Japan, the chapter explores the ways such relationships were perceived by their contemporaries, instead of focusing on the ethical side of sexual relationships between a monk and an adolescent temple acolyte, with which most of contemporary research is preoccupied. Drawing from waka, enshi (sensuous Chinese-style poems), medieval chigo tales (chigo monogatari), and an erotic illustrated scroll, Schmidt-Hori concludes that representations of Buddhist monks in relationships with chigo are “mixed in with a slight sense of guilt for ‘violating’ the young acolytes as well as a sense of aversion to blatant depictions of hypersexuality of elder monks” (p. 191). Lastly, the chapter takes up the image of Ikkyū Sōjun (1394-1481), one of the most revered Zen Buddhist monks in Japan, as an example of covert prestige. Analyzing his sexually explicit poetry and self-representation within it, Schmidt-Hori argues that Ikkyū’s covert prestige is expressed through his defiance to authority despite his noble birth and refusal to defend sexual acts as a means of accruing Buddhist merit.

The dissertation’s extensive examination of gender ideals within literary works from the Heian and medieval periods offers an effective strategy for understanding the power of those living on the periphery. Its laudable selection and pairing of characters, as well as astute analysis of both primary sources and critical studies lay the foundation for future scholarship of the complex relationship between power and desire. The dissertation’s findings will undoubtedly make important contributions to the fields of premodern Japanese literature, Japanese culture, and the history of gender and sexuality. Moreover, this study will certainly prove beneficial for both instructors and students of Japanese literature.

Gergana Ivanova
Assistant Professor
Department of German Studies
Asian Studies Program
University of Cincinnati

Primary Sources

Chigo Kannon engi
Genji monogatari
Heike monogatari
Ise monogatari
Uji shūi monogatari

Dissertation Information

University of Washington. 2012. 230 pp. Primary Advisor: Paul S. Atkins.


Image: Kōgyo Tsukioka (月岡 耕漁) (1869–1927), Nogaku zue (1899). Walters Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons.