Between the Back and the Front: Male Love in Humorous Tales of the Edo Period

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Abstract

The present article explores representations of male-male sexuality and eroticism in humorous tales of the Edo period. The point of departure for the discussion is the metaphor of ‘back’ and ‘front’, which delineated the sexual options available to a grown-up man, namely anal sex with males and vaginal sex with female partners. A brief preliminary overview of the custom of male love (nanshoku), which forms the unifying theme of the tales under discussion, is provided. After an introduction to the genre of Edo-period humorous tales (shōwa or kobanashi), the article centres on the depiction of male-male intercourse and eroticism in this type of literature, and argues that certain discrepancies, relevant from a gender perspective, become discernible in the respective representations of the two partners of a nanshoku relationship. It is shown how the metaphor of ‘back’ and ‘front’ is grounded in sexual practice, how it functioned and how it is employed for the achievement of a comic effect in the tales. The article then goes on to address the question of the extent to which male sexuality can be said to move ‘between the back and the front’, and some thoughts on gender and desire in the Edo period are offered.

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