Hi, my name is Ellen and I’m one of the Bridging Binaries tour guides at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. On Bridging Binaries tours, we talk about LGBTQ history that’s often otherwise overlooked. I’ll be talking a bit about the two Noh masks from Japan that are in the museum’s collection, one of a young woman and one of a “tragic figure,” an older woman.
These masks were used in the performance of Noh theater. Until the 1940s Noh theatre was acted exclusively by male performers, with men wearing female masks in order to take on the roles of women. Today, Noh is still performed, and is protected as an art form in Japan.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Japanese theatrical performances often relied heavily on erotic spectacle featuring attractive young men to appeal to patrons. These men often became influential in the arts through their patrons. For instance, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was an influential shogan in the Japanese Southern Court. With his patronage, Noh actor Zeami (who was also Yoshimitsu’s lover) was able to write 40 plays and more than twenty books of theory which laid the foundation for Noh to become the world’s oldest major theatre art tradition still performed.
During this time, if court gossip is to be believed, each shogun had a male lover as it was believed male homoerotic desire was a sacred force. Until the Meiji reforms of the nineteenth century, Japanese men were what we might call "bisexual" and could engage in homosexual relations under certain conditions.
The idealized expression of homosexual desire was that of the warrior and his companion the wakashu. The wakashu was valued for his devotion, artistic accomplishments, beauty, and bravery as a willing student of the martial arts from his mentor and lover. As the samurai class emerged in later centuries in Japan, so too did the representations of male same-sex love as a martial model of homosexuality. This was a common motif in Noh theater as well.
One example is the tragedy of Atsumori, a well-known and idealized wakashu. In it, Atsumori, the young samurai, is slain in battle. His killer Kumagae is struck by Atsumori’s youth and beauty, and when he finds a flute on Atsumori’s dead body, he is instantly haunted and seeks a spiritual path, becoming a monk. The play closes with the ghost of Atsumori and the old monk reconciling.
The tale was a favourite of sixteenth century feudal lord Oda Nobunaga, known as the first of three “great unifiers” of Japan. He met with a grisly end when a general staged a coup possibly because of the rising influence of his favourite attendant, the talented, loyal, and of course, beautiful Mori Ranmaru. The two are a celebrated example of the warrior lover pairing in the nanshuko tradition. Mori Ranmaru is best remembered for fighting alongside his lord to the very end. After realizing they had been defeated in the coup, they died together by ritual suicide.