The Meiji era (1868 – 1912) gave rise to a variety of sexual attitudes relating to the importation of Western ideas and mores. Some Japanese leaders who travelled to western countries found a model for expression in European dandies, emulating their lifestyles and manners. Others derided these foreign affectations as effeminate, decadent, and un-Japanese, which broadly speaking, produced a schizm between “feminized” and “masculinized” expressions of masculinity. The latter polarity was nationalistic, a response to a perceived threat of feminization posed by western modernity, an onslaught against Japanese ideals and morality.
In 1887, the press lampooned the Itō government of the day for hosting lavish parties, attended by members of the upper crust wearing extravagant foreign clothes and wigs and purportedly indulging in immoral and adulterous behaviour. Moral critics of the time bemoaned the imported libertinism and its attendant patronizing of prostitutes and geisha:
[T]hough the Japanese gentleman is an unabashedly civilized man, if one looks within one finds that his conduct is depraved. Radiant on the outside, he is rotting within.Qtd. Karlin 47
We can perhaps detect echoes of this controversy in the robust discussion between Jibun and his friend on opposed masculine ideals. Of course, Jibun’s beliefs here overlap significantly with his idealization of Tsuru.
Jibun’s friend sees him as a prude, but Jibun’s ideas about masturbation are progressive, and substantiated by Western scientific ideas, such as those of the Russian born, 1908 Nobel Prize-winning biologist Élie Metchnikoff. In his Nature of Man, he describes the practice as common to all races, and:
… the result of a natural disharmony in the human constitution, of a premature development of sexual sensation.p. 96
Tsuru forever in the back of his mind, Jibun is still struggling to concentrate on the book he purchased at Maruzen, in the first chapter, the title “Civilization and Education, written by someone named Münch.” The book in question is likely to be an early work by Paul Georg Münch (1877 – 1956). He was a Leipzig-born pedagogue, who wrote on the topic of educational reform as early as 1908. (Later on, he moved to writing science fiction and drama.) The teachers’ magazine Die Deutsche Schule “acknowledged Münch’s ‘early’ books as ‘a not insignificant part’ of the ‘school renewal movement of our time’” (Wikimedia). This all resonates with Jibun’s self-conception, though I could not locate a title the same as the Maruzen one.
The next morning, I woke up around seven o’clock. Before eating, I went out to post my letter of the previous night. While doing so, I prayed for good fortune.
I am not very strong on praying. But when I do, I feel somewhat safer. When I am worried or wish for something, I have a habit of praying with all my heart for a while.
Today, for the first time in ages, the weather was fine, with an invigorating chill to the air. I decided to commence my studies without being preoccupied with Tsuru.
No matter how I try, I cannot help but think about her. Still, I am not going to allow my mind to be distracted. It would be foolish to waste so much time.
I had already done everything in my power. I must not imagine her becoming my wife. Nor allow any lingering regrets of the sort, if only it might have been.
Regardless, I still wondered how she might be doing. Immediately, I wished for everything to go well, and imagined the ridicule of the people in my neighbourhood. “Tsuru, a word to you. When the world says these sorts of things, it only makes two people love each other more and more.”
Breakfast was served at 8:30. Haru-chan was energetic as ever. Children of three and four are physically fit and always so happy and eager to be with those who love them. I watched on in fascination, spontaneously smiling to myself and reflecting on how truly precious my mother and father must find her.
But in fact, they were both smiling and laughing with slightly awkward expressions.
Just then I had a desire to see Tsuru’s happy face. I immediately gave up the idea, but could no longer smile. I ate hurriedly, regarding my parents askance when they became absorbed in their laughter, and giving just a little smile when they tried to include me. I finished eating and returned to my room, feeling alone and lonely.
I opened Münch’s book and started reading, but could not settle down.
I wish to become an educator in the broadest sense—to erect a new hall of knowledge in the place of a crumbling one. I want to teach seekers of knowledge what it is they curse in their heads and desire in their hearts.
I labour constantly under this burden, but I am weak. A man without talent.
I am like ivy that creeps along the ground, longing for the heavens but helpless. Grasping onto anything I encounter, thinking, ah, here is something with which to lift myself up. In this respect, I am an optimist. First and foremost, I wish to rely on Tsuru, but that seems impossible.
There is something I do not want to say at this point, but feel it is necessary. I need to confess something that nature has commanded me to keep secret. It concerns the issue of lust. Nature has an awesome power to make us feel ashamed of lustful cravings we all have. Think of how incoherent the relationship between men and women would be without shame! It is by using embarrassment that nature commands us to keep the subject as secret as possible. But I must respectfully disobey.
While unmarried, when tempted by lasciviousness, I try to escape by self-stimulation. Yet some people manage to live a good life without either masturbating or knowing a woman. Such a life would seem to be possible, given the power of human will and the faculty of reason. However, after a rather strong struggle, I have come to believe it is acceptable to masturbate. When a friend told me that Metchnikoff held the same opinion, it strengthened my conviction. Nevertheless, it seems a shameful thing, almost uniquely shameful. Whenever my thoughts turn to such things, a voice in my mind says, “You are nothing but a vile masturbator.” Perhaps one reason why I wanted to marry Tsuru as soon as possible was to rid myself of this source of shame.
Unable to sit still with Münch’s book, I decided to go for a walk to Kanda. On the way, I met a friend from Koishikawa. He told me he had been thinking of coming to see me, so we went back to my home together.
He was the oldest friend I had and I was very fond of him. He had graduated from a commercial high school three years earlier and was working at Mitsui. He is a pragmatic man who disdains daydreaming and fantasy. He dismisses moral principles as well, believing there is no virtue worth a damn. Virtue, he says, is the creation of the strong and the burden of the weak, and he equates the weak with the sick. Just as the sick suffer without being morally judged, neither should the weak be judged. There is no sense in feeling sympathy for either.
We frequently argue, but then we can exchange just a few words to put the dispute completely behind us.
In a word, we do not share the same ideology or interests, but are in harmony in other respects.
On that day, we were talking about one thing and another, and found ourselves in a discussion about libertinism.
“I am surprised that you still think of it as a bad thing. You cannot open your eyes,” my friend remarked scornfully.
“I feel sorry for debauchers.”
“You probably envy them.”
“That may be so, but I am also sorry for them. It is not unreasonable for a man who is starved for a woman to go out and pay for a prostitute or geisha as a means of solace and pleasure. But it is not a good idea. First of all, it is unnatural for women to be manipulated for money. It demeans them, and negates the need for male-female relationships. A man’s interest in a woman becomes vile, which may be convenient for the libertine, but must be unbearable for the woman.”
“You speak from the female perspective, as one would expect from a prude. However, a healthy man has rights as well. Someone who takes pleasure in life is entitled to do that, without being expected to go around imitating an invalid. You, as a scholar, should not derive satisfaction from the plight of the weak. I will not accept the idea that healthy people should be condemned for complying with the demands of nature and enjoying themselves.”
“I wonder if it is nature that drives them to debauchery. I am surprised that you are unaware of the damage it can cause.”
“I have heard that nonsense, damnit, but there is no harm in lust! The world does not work the way moralists would like. It is not uncommon for a playboy to thrive and for a prude to be neurologically weak. Of course, a playboy may suffer consequences, depending on the situation. But those who denounce him for his debauchery wish secretly they could have done the same. Those prudes should die peacefully, knowing it was their dedication to their work that killed them.”
“I am not talking about the visible harms of debauchery, but about the waste of energy, time, and money that could be put to better use. The neglect of hobbies and interests. The playboy’s craving when he is not experiencing pleasure. The anxiety of perpetually yearning for a geisha. The destruction of peace in the home.”
“Oh come now! A playboy has a sweet time simply debauching. He can drink, fool around with women, and do whatever he wants. They don’t deal with individuals but with pleasure per se.”
“You would probably become crazed with all that lust.”
“You may get carried away at times, but that is not a problem. All you have to do is get as much pleasure out of it as you can. Simply take pleasure in the moment, enjoy that delightful feeling, and nothing is lost.”
“I feel sorry for the wife.”
“You would be just as well off not having a wife. Anyway, if you manage things properly, you do not have to feel that way. Women welcome a playboy more than a prig. First of all, strangely enough, they are bound to dislike a fellow like you, who is not the least bit shrewd. Women are foolish enough to think that a man who respects and loves them is effeminate. They consider a man inflexible and dull-witted who doesn’t take his pleasures as he finds them. You have to be blunt about everything, and be plain about what pleases you. Women believe what they hear. They lie a lot, but they are also easily deceived. The secret to getting a woman is first to occupy her body, and then her spirit will be inside of it. A man like you will never be loved by a woman. You can do no better than revolve around your beloved like the earth around the sun.”
“You have gone completely off track.” I was getting an earache, so I changed the subject.
My friend laughed incredulously, and then said, “What happened about … that little matter?”
He knows about my love for Tsuru.
I told him about my friend’s visit of the previous night and about my letter.
He did not laugh a bit. When I had finished my story, he said:
“I hope it works out, and if it does, there will be no one happier than you. You are absolutely unqualified to be a playboy.”
“I have no desire to be promiscuous,” I said. “I am hungry for a woman, but long for the pleasure of just one woman.”
“That’s fair enough, I suppose, but it can’t be all fun and games,” my friend laughed.
“That may be so. I am afraid of that too. But otherwise, if she were not there, perhaps I would have no pleasure whatsoever. That would be terrible. Maybe as bad as the time I have been having already.”
We laughed and our discussion turned elsewhere.
He left before noon.
The next morning, on the third, Mr Kawaji wrote back. “I understand your feelings entirely. I will consult with the father, and do everything in my power to accomplish a satisfactory result. I beg you to leave everything with me,” the letter read.
May you be blessed with good fortune!
Notes, References, Further Reading
- Photographic portrait of male: Takashi Masuda (1848 – 1938) ca. 1868. Founder of Mitsui Group, Nissan Chemical Industries, Mitsui Bank.
- Shunga Ukiyoe print: Utamaro Kitagawa, ‘Lovers in the upstairs room of a teahouse’, c.1788 (Edo period). Look closely for the male’s lascivious eye.
Karlin, Jason G. “The Gender of Nationalism: Competing Masculinities in Meiji Japan.” Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Winter, 2002), pp. 41-77.
Metchnikoff, Élie. The Nature of Man: Studies in Optimistic Philosophy (London: Heinemann, 1903). Available, Internet Archive.
Noble, Denis. “Slow sex, long life: Tokyo’s imperial archives advise what science now confirms: the secret of longevity lies in the gentle arts of the bedroom“. Aeon.co
English translation of Saneatsu Mushanokoji’s Omedetakihito (1910) by Michael Guest © 2022
Categories: Mushanokoji's Good Natured Man
Amazing article, very informative.
japanese block prints
Thank you, I enjoyed writing it too. Great to have your feedback! 🙂
Many thanks, Jasmine!