The Development of Bishounen from Samurai Culture

Whether it is in Japanese animation (anime), comics (manga) or in magazines, it is inevitable to come across at least one bishounen character in them. Bishounen literally means ‘beautiful young boy’ but it is also used to describe any young man who is portrayed as more beautiful than handsome1. It is not uncommon to have ‘pretty boys’ in the media and is not something unique to Japan; however, the development of bishounen in anime and manga is vastly different from other countries due to the roots of bishounen. The question that arises is how did bishounen occur in Japan and how did it develop to its present form. One point of view is that the development of bishounen is due to gender politics, where the Japanese women use these androgynous men as a way to transgress gender conventions. This may be true at a certain point in time but as incredulous as it seems, the bishounen we recognise today is rooted in samurai culture and this has caused the bishounen to possess certain features associated with the samurais.

To begin, let us define what is meant by samurai culture. Samurai culture is the totality of socially transmitted behaviour, patterns, arts, beliefs and expression of the samurai class2. Although the samurai class is no longer around in modern Japan, there are remnants of samurai culture that continues to affect aspects of Japanese society. This essay would only focus on how the samurai class had affected the way the ‘pretty boy’ concept has developed in the Japanese society and has turned up in popular entertainment such as anime and manga.

The beginning of bishounen can be seen from the homosexual relations that the samurai engaged throughout history. It does not seem conceivable, to some, that the samurai was a class that encouraged homosexual relationships since they are the warrior caste and have always been associated with the sword and fighting. What is seldom known is that, since the beginning of the twelfth century, samurais had often engaged in homosexual relations and establishing it as being masculine in the Japanese society. According to Levi, “the samurai like the ancient Greeks, regarded same-sex relationships between men as a vital part of warrior training” and it was common to see “relationships between an older samurai and the boy he was training” (Levi, 76). Levi goes on to suggest that besides sexual pleasure, the samurai used sex as a way of binding a young samurai to his trainer in order to garner unwavering support on the battlefield. This sort of training also had some connection with the samurai’s concept of masculinity. Masculinity meant virility, and certain Shinto rituals may have paved the ground for homosexual relations in samurai culture3 by encouraging the libido between males.

To the warrior caste, sex was seen as necessary to produce heirs but “over-indulgence, especially if fired by love, was seen as a weakness which had no place among the rapidly crystallising concepts of bushido, the stoic way of the warrior and the code of the samurai” (Bornoff, 426). On the other hand, passion between males was not seen as perverted but an admirable masculine ideal. Bornoff wrote that women came to be regarded with increasing contempt during the fifteen century and women were seen as necessary for procreation purposes, which may have led to the further development of homosexual behaviour to be seen as even more masculine than before. The idea that masculinity equals homosexuality was so strong that it was not unusual for samurai or shoguns to have several young men as lovers; the more young lovers implied that the samurai was more virile. In fact, the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) was well known for having a harem of young pages as well as for having a long affair with Zeami (a famous Noh actor who helped develop Noh into its present art form) that began when Zeami was only twelve years old. Nonetheless, strict conventions dictate that the passive feminine role was “proper only to youths and boys” (Bornoff, 426) and we see that the feminine appearance of the bishounen could be due to this convention. Soon, this bond between a young boy and his patron was named as shudo – the way of the youth.

This meant that the young boys that the samurais had affairs with were the male alternatives to females as sexual partners. By using the young males as a sign of masculinity, it does not seem too far off to suggest that this sense of masculinity is carried on in the bishounen. The ‘pretty boy’ falls into the convention of being the passive feminine role, emphasised even more so with his effeminate looks. Accordingly, the gaze cast upon the bishounen would be the same as the samurai, which is one of sexuality. This is evident by the sheer number of bishounen characters in all genres of anime and manga.

The samurai’s practice of shudo encouraged the creation of wakashu, or young men’s kabuki theatre, since its main patrons were samurai. Wakashu was inspired by the female kabuki at first, but took off to great heights when the Tokugawa government banned female kabuki but not male kabuki. As such, the kabuki stage turned into an all-male arena and young men played female roles. Through female impersonators in the kabuki theatre, called the onnagata, there is a certain sense of homoeroticism as these young males were seen as objects of sexual desires. These youths were playing beautiful females, but people knew that they were males and this gender ambivalence added to the sexuality of the onnagata. Some of these onnagata were so beautiful that a number of samurai were known to raise their swords to fight for the favours of these actors. This unconscious sexuality affected not only the males, but the female audience too and some women had affairs with these charming onnagata. There was an incident where a “woman from the aristocratic Ejima samurai family and the famous actor Ikushima” (Bornoff, 166) had an illicit affair, showing that these onnagata pandered not only to homosexuals but to heterosexuals too. Therefore, we see the kabuki started to shape the bishounen further along the lines of an object of sexual desire in popular culture. However, despite the onnagata’s great popularity, the term bishounen was still not coined during this era because there were old male actors playing the onnagata although youths were generally preferred.

Nevertheless, thanks to the kabuki theatre, one major aspect of being a bishounen was to be beautiful in outward appearance. To the Japanese, “beauty precludes neither courage nor fighting skills” (Bornoff, 436) and beauty is not a characteristic that is exclusive to the female sex. In fact, beauty is often associated with androgynous looks because beauty is something that appeals to both males and females4 and not just to a certain gender. Beauty also connotes certain qualities like refinement and aristocratic behaviour. Since the samurai had been the ruling class in Japan from the twelfth century until the Meiji Restoration, it is only normal that the Japanese associate the qualities of beauty to that of the samurai class. Hence, the foundation of bishounen in anime extended further from just being boys who look pretty but also into males who are skilful in martial arts. The idea of aristocrats possessing refined manners also seeped into the portrayal of bishounen as being gentlemanly and one can observe that few bishounen characters in anime speak or behave coarsely.

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The Japanese have another concept of beauty called mono no aware, which can be loosely translated to be about the sensitivity of things. Richard Hooker5 wrote that the phrase mono no aware derived from aware, which, in Heian Japan meant something like “sensitivity” or “sadness”, means “a sensitivity to things.” Mono no aware is a feature of Japanese aesthetics, which can be found in all aspects of Japanese culture. Hence, it is not surprising that the aesthetics of bishounen has qualities linked to mono no aware. In essence, knowing that something has a short lifespan of beauty or youth makes it all the more beautiful though there is a twinge of sadness.

In his popular novel, Musashi, the story of Japan’s best-known swordsman, Yoshikawa Eiji writes describes mono no aware from the warrior’s perspective:
“In the case of the samurai there is such a thing as an appreciation of the poignancy of things… a real samurai, a genuine swordsman has a compassionate heart, he understands the poignancy of life.”

As such, the samurai is supposed to understand the concept of mono no aware and this concept is also associated to the samurai as these warriors often faced death during battles. Thus, mono no aware is partially responsible for the depiction of samurai legends as beautiful young lads. The two samurai legends soon became the mould for most bishounen characters in anime because they epitomise the concept of mono no aware. Youth does not last and as such, using the bishounen style to depict the samurai legends would bring out the quality of mono no aware as their beauty is heightened with the knowledge of their deaths. The two samurai legends in discussion are Minamoto Yoshitsune and Amakusa Shiro. Minamoto Yoshitsune was the samurai who helped his brother, Minamoto Yorimoto, to become Japan’s first shogun. However, Yorimoto did not trust Yoshitsune and the brothers soon became rivals, resulting in Yoshitsune committing seppuku (samurai tradition of committing suicide by belly-slitting, also known as hara-kiri in the West). Yoshitsune became a warrior at the tender age of thirteen and died when he was thirty.
The other samurai legend is Amakusa Shiro, a Christian samurai who led a peasant uprising (in 1638) against the Tokugawa government at the age of sixteen. Despite his defeat, Amakusa became an underground symbol of resistance against the Shogun and canonised as a brave warrior who fought courageously for a cause. Both Yoshitsune and Amakusa had died young and they were remembered in popular imagination for being beautiful mainly due to their doomed fates. The kabuki theatre utilised this popular imagination when they staged plays about these samurai legends during the Edo period. The legends’ great beauty was an “extreme stylisation serving to make the ill-fated youthful hero’s demise all the more tragic” (Bornoff, 168). Like kabuki, anime and manga are visual mediums and they borrow this visual technique by often drawing the hero of an anime as a bishounen in order to make the hero’s death more heart rendering, especially when contrasted with a masculine or ugly villain.

It is not surprising that samurai legends continue to be the subject of popular entertainment. Like the kabuki theatre, anime and manga draw on samurai historical figures as a source of inspiration. For example, the character Hotohori from Fushigi Yuugi is a young emperor who is one of the Suzaku (one of the four Gods of the book as mentioned in the story) warriors. Hotohori is one of the prettiest males in the anime series, with his long flowing hair and small cherry lips. Just like the samurai legends, Hotohori is skilful with the sword and shows typical traits associated to his looks, which are nobility and selflessness. The emperor is a gentleman towards all the other characters in the anime series and is never seen arguing or shouting at another person. Moreover, Hotohori is shown to be a selfless person as he gives up the pursuit of the female lead (Miaka) when he realises that she is in love with Tamahome instead. Unfortunately, just like Amakusa, the beautiful emperor dies an early death during battle with a neighbouring country and Hotohori’s beauty highlights the sadness of his death. There are many more examples of bishounen characters like Hotohori and this shows that the legacy of the samurai is still ingrained into Japanese popular culture.

Another aspect of samurai culture would be its literature and it has been said to be “filled with references to beautiful young men who were also fine swordsmen and fearless warriors” (Levi, 76) and these traits set the benchmark for the characteristics of a typical bishounen in anime series. For example, in the anime series Fruits Basket, the main bishounen character is Sohma Yuki who is a first year junior high school student. Sohma is well known in school for being beautiful and there are references to his androgynous beauty throughout the whole anime. Despite being able to look like a pretty girl, there is a fan club in the school that ‘worships’ Sohma as the Prince of the school. Other than his looks, Sohma is accomplished in martial arts too as seen from all his duels throughout the anime. These qualities of courage and skill are also expressed in bushido, which is the warriors code written during the Tokugawa period. The way of the warrior, as written in the book of bushido, are all ideal behaviour of the samurai but this book left such a deep impression on samurai culture that bishounen often follow most of these ideal qualities.
Bushido is a moral code where the seven main principles are:
1. Gi: the right decision, taken with equanimity, the right attitude, and the truth. When we must die, we must die. Rectitude.
2. Yu: bravery tinged with heroism.
3. Jin: universal love, benevolence toward mankind; compassion.
4. Rei: right action–a most essential quality, courtesy.
5. Makoto: utter sincerity; truthfulness.
6. Melyo: honour and glory.
7. Chugo: devotion, loyalty.

It is not surprising to find that bishounen characters, like Hotohori and Sohma Yuki, possess these bushido traits related to the samurai. This only implies that the bishounen’s personality is based on the samurai.

As we can see, the samurai culture was the foundation for how the ‘pretty boys’ in anime came to be and why bishounen share similar characteristics to the samurai legends. However, a characteristic of bishounen is that they are drawn to look androgynous meaning that the bishounen has both the physical quality of both sexes and the characteristics neutral to or in between the two genders7. So then how did the bishounen get its androgynous look? During the course of my research, no androgynous pictures or art could be found before the 1920’s. The androgynous look of the bishounen could have started during the 1920s either when the famous children’s illustrator, Kasho Takabate, used the same sweet, innocent face to draw both males or females or he could also be a major influence in the depiction of androgynous males.

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There is a lack of mention of other illustrators before Takabate who drew androgynous characters, implying that Takabate’s drawings made the androgynous look part of popular culture. This style of depiction is carried on in today’s manga and anime, where both the female characters and the bishounen share similar facial features. Using the examples of the characters in Fushigi Yuugi, the main characters Miaka and Tamahome are drawn with the same face shape, sharp chins, large eyes and long hair (Figure 1). On the other hand, the masculine character Mitsukake has a slightly square jaw line, short hair and large muscular frame (Figure 2).

The popularisation of androgynous characters in children’s illustrations had another impact of the development of bishounen in anime. Before the 1920s, the appearance of bishounen appeared mainly on the kabuki stage and the audience was mainly adults in the Yoshiwara (red-light district in Tokyo). However, what Takabate had done was to make bishounen trendy and accepted outside the walls of the Yoshiwara since children were consumers of his illustrations. Thus, the bishounen style reached a wider mass and could develop beyond the kabuki and onto print art. Children, being the main audience of these drawings would find it normal and perhaps, even expect to see bishounen in their storybooks or manga. This would also explain why comics and anime have bishounen characters but the Japanese children do not find anything strange about them.

Nonetheless, one cannot deny that gender politics helped fuel the development of bishounen in anime and manga in modern times. It was during the post-World War 2 period that the term bishounen was used and there was a sudden proliferation of ‘pretty boys’ in comics. This sudden abundance of bishounen characters could be accredited to gender politics in Japan. Japanese society is highly gendered in the sense that gender roles are highly defined according to their biological sexes. The Japanese language (which has different sets of words for males and females), as well as the segregation that occurs between the sexes since childhood, further reinforces the gender division. Levi indicated that Japanese males and females find it hard to communicate with each other, and are therefore “more comfortable with their own sex” (Levi, 135). Moreover, socialisation has taught that the Japanese men are supposed to be the breadwinners and the hardworking salary men. Women on the other hand, are delegated to the domestic sphere where marriage and taking care of the family is of utmost importance. As such, this gender division sets up a sense of pressure for the Japanese females who do not fit the gender stereotype as they are career women or want to be career women. These pressurised women would therefore look for an outlet for their frustrations as well as fantasies and this is when bishounen became a tool for the females.

Since the end of World War 2, Japanese women have been part of the workforce and have been taking on roles that were formerly performed by males. Nevertheless, the gender divide still exists and the androgynous bishounen in anime are a reaction against it. Androgynous males represent the ideal male that Japanese women want either as a partner or as a friend. Due to the gender segregation, females often want to have close male friends without any romantic involvement. With androgynous males, this seems possible because he has both male and female traits. An androgynous male therefore becomes less threatening and appealing, and women can enter the fantasy of being able to freely interact with males. Bishounen can also be sexually appealing to the Japanese female because the combination of both male and female traits means the bishounen being able to be a lover and a friend at the same time since they “combine love, friendship, and communication all in one wonderful package” (Levi, 135). In other words, the strict gender roles in Japanese society no longer holds true with regards to bishounen. In addition, the bishounen allows Japanese women to create a space for themselves to express their wishes and hopes for the Japanese society.
Along the same lines of gender politics, the bishounen was also used to form another genre of manga and anime that is called shounen ai or yaoi.

Shounen ai is about love between two young males and this genre came about as a form of escapism of females since homosexuals “can find romantic love without those gender barriers” (Levi, 135) and this is something that the Japanese envy. However, it would be over generalising to say that bishounen is delegated only to homosexual characters in anime. Bishounen can be used for female gender politics as seen from the shounen ai genre but beautiful boys occur in other genres as well.

Although heroes are normally depicted by bishounen, some anime and manga artists use bishounen as the villain. As stated by Levi, the 1990s have not been kind to the bishounen where they were used as villains instead of warriors. Levi attributed such a phenomenon to the influx of Western mind-set on homosexuality and effeminacy. Although Levi adds that bishounen is mainly used for villains due to the Western mentality towards homosexuality, this statement seems to disregard the many bishounen characters that are heroes. Furthermore, the bishounen genre of anime and manga has continued to be strong and has long passed the stage where beautiful youth only meant heroes or villains.

In several anime, like Fushigi Yuugi and Fruit Basket, both villains and heroes are drawn in the soft and pretty manner. This shows that the bishounen has gone beyond its association with homosexuality in the eyes of the Japanese people and into a world of both heterosexuals and homosexuals. It is at this point too that we see the bishounen starting to shed its connection to other genres like shounen ai or yaoi (which is a genre of anime Levi seems to delegate the bishounens to), or even female gender politics, but has turned into a common manner of masculine portrayal. Moreover, the fact that several bishounen characters possess certain traits associated with samurais (like loyalty, refined behaviour and martial arts) points that bishounen is another form of masculinity instead of merely homosexual portrayal.

One has to understand that the world of anime is one of fantasy and the bishounen plays not only on women’s fantasy but on men’s desires too. Bornoff states that:

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“In the realm of the imaginary, the strict roles encapsulating male and female are broken, being transgressed in fantasies which can be singly and variously violent, sadistic, maudlin, sentimental or comical. Transcending the laws of society, authority and even gender, these fantasies reach an apotheosis in the popular imagination with ethereal creatures as blessedly sexless as occidental angels.” (p.437)

Bornoff8 adds that bishounen is treated in the same category as vampires or aliens, meaning that bishounen is a fantasy outlet for those who feel oppressed by society’s pressures. Society’s pressures is not only on the females but the males as well, hence we must not forget that the Japanese males can use androgynous bishounens to fulfil certain hopes too. Perhaps the Japanese males could use the bishounen as a model of masculinity, where they aim to be like these characters in the anime and manga. The samurai-like traits that the bishounen could be what Japanese youths to acquire.

Contrary to popular belief, bishounen does not appear only in shoujo anime (anime that is catered to a female audience). There is Himurai Kenshin from Samurai X, Okita Souji from Peace Maker Kurogane and Katsushirou from Samurai 7. All these anime series mentioned are often violent, gory and meant for a male audience but have at least one ‘pretty boy’ in it. These bishounen are not homosexuals and are obviously males due to their masculine names, masculine form of speech and lack of breasts. One psycho-sociological reason for having an androgynous character in shounen anime (anime meant for boys) is that they serve as a character where the male lead can be friends with, rather than being rivals. This can be seen from the example of the anime series Naruto. The lead character, Naruto, and the character Sasuke are fierce rivals and Sasuke is the epitome of masculinity in the anime. Sasuke is the top of his class, is highly skilled in ninjutsu (ninja skills) and is popular with the girls. Naruto easily became friends with the androgynous looking male character Haku, where the latter taught Naruto that true strength comes from wanting to protect a loved one.

By making Haku androgynous looking, Naruto lets his guard down and does not see Haku as competition but as a potential friend. The androgynous Haku also makes it easier for the audience to accept that a male is teaching about love and loyalty, as gender stereotyping leads to think that it is cheesy for a man to be so verbal about love. In the end, Haku died while protecting Zabuza who saved Haku from the streets and taught him ninjutsu. Haku is a bishounen who embodies the samurai spirit of bushido and there is a hint of shudo relationship between Haku and Zabuza. Haku is completely loyal to Zabuza despite Zabuza’s seemingly ‘evilness’ (Zabuza is dubbed the devil in the anime), exemplifying the spirit of bushido which mainly about staying absolutely loyal to one’s master. Furthermore, Haku had said repeatedly that Zabuza is his most precious loved one, whom he will protect at all costs, and this gives the viewer a hint of shudo since the relationship between Haku and Zabuza is also one of a teacher and student. Haku’s beauty adds to the sense of sorrow when we watch him die. From the example of Haku alone, we can see how the samurai traditions have shaped the presentation and presence of bishounen in anime.

Drawing on the noble qualities associated with beauty, the bishounen can also serve as a foil against the villain. Since most anime is made for an audience of children, it is simple for the children to relate the beautiful character as the good one versus the villain who is often ugly or very masculine in appearance. In the anime series Chrno Crusade, the main male lead is Chrno who appears in the anime series mostly as a child. However, Chrno is actually a devil in child form in order to preserve energy and his contractor’s (Rosette) life. As a young boy, Chrno is drawn as a cute little boy where most of the nuns keep calling him kawaii (cute). When Chrno turns into demon form, his appearance is drawn in the bishounen style where he has a small mouth and sharp chin. This is in contrast with the anime’s villains – Viscount Lerajie and Ricardo Hendrick – who are older (drawn to look like they are in their thirties and forties respectively) have square jaw lines, prominent noses and strong features.

As explained earlier, bishounen occurs in other genres of anime besides those involving gay-love. One has to remember that, although adults are known to watch them, children consume anime as a form of entertainment as well. Psychologist Sandra L. Bem purports that children probably do not think too much about these androgynous characters and hardly pays any attention to the character’s androgynous looks. This may be due to the children not being aware of their sexuality yet. Thus, it may be too quick a judgement to label bishounen mainly as a reaction to gender politics. Instead, gender politics uses bishounen as a way to transgress the gender roles defined in the Japanese society, and allow the female to enter a fantasy realm. Moreover, manga artists may just prefer drawing bishounens in their comics and their work has nothing to do with gender politics or popularity of the bishounen. It is the samurai culture that helped to develop the traits that bishounen possess in anime and gender politics popularise it even further in new genres of anime. Perhaps, bishounen in Japan has developed to the point it has become the neo-samurai and is another form of masculinity that men can attain.


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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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