Tom of Finland’s First Exhibition in Tokyo: Some Comments on Gay Erotic Art in Japanese History and Culture

The Tom of Finland Exhibition at the Shibuya Parco Mall, 2020

I recently provided some comments on an article for YLE News, the national news agency of Finland, concerning the recent exhibition of iconic queer erotic artist Tom of Finland’s work in Japan. You can read the brilliant article and see my comments here.

I shared many thoughts with the journalist, Tom Bateman, which didn’t make the article (which I understand – I shared too many ideas!). So I thought I’d share them below. Here are my responses to Tom’s fascinating questions:

Were you surprised to hear that it took years to find a gallery in Japan that’d show Tom of Finland’s work?

Not particularly, but my lack of surprise stems less from notions that the display of “gay art” would be viewed with hostility than an awareness that the display of any sexually suggestive material can be considered risky for Japanese gallery owners. Article 175 of the Japanese Penal Code explicitly prohibits the display, distribution and circulation of “obscene” materials and this has traditionally been interpreted to refer to any work of sexually explicit artwork which contains uncensored depictions of sexual organs. The Penal Code does not contain a strict definition of what constitutes obscenity, however, and this produces the chilling effect whereby depictions of sexual acts that deviate from accepted social norms (such as male nudity or male-male sexual activity) may be judged as “obscene” whereas work that depicts (censured) sexual acts that conform with social norms (female nudity or male-female sexual activity) are not immediately considered obscene. I wouldn’t be surprised to think that gallery owners who were previously contacted might have thought a display of Tom of Finland’s artwork might be considered obscene and did not want to attract negative publicity.

I make this explanation within the context of there having been previous controversies surrounding the depiction of gay erotic (or at least homoerotic) art in Japan, some of which was quite explicit and some of which was quite benign. For instance, there was extensive controversy over the sale of a collection of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in 2003. The Tokyo Metropolitan Court argued that the collection violated obscenity laws, a decision which was only over-turned by the Supreme Court of Japan in 2008. Likewise, in 2013, a prominent gay bookstore in Tokyo called Lumiere was charged with distributing obscene materials because they were selling photobooks of nude men by photographer Leslie Kee. In both these instances, the art was homoerotic and contained depictions of uncensored penises. In a more worrying case, the Shinjuku Ward Office ordered an HIV awareness poster displayed in the gay neighbourhood of Shinjuku Ni-chome to be censured since it depicted a man in his underwear (an example of the chilling effect). Within this historical context, I can understand why some gallery owners would be hesitant to display a Tom of Finland exhibition. It all boils down to the arbitrary and heteronormative ways that obscenity is defined in Japanese law.

Is there a taboo over depicting gay sexuality in Japan – has that always been the case?

I think it’s more appropriate to speak about “male-male intimacy” than “gay sexuality”, because the latter as a concept only emerged in Japan in the late-19th to early 20th Centuries. Japan has a long historical tradition of art depicting male-male intimacy, such as nanshoku shunga, erotic art depicting “the way of male love” which often tended to contain highly explicit depictions of male-male penetrative sex. The traditional kabuki theatre also played around with male-male intimacy due to the fact that female roles were traditionally performed by men and that certain of these performers also engaged in sex work with male clients. 

After Japan’s modernisation during the late 19th Century, depictions of same-sex intimacy became increasingly stigmatised and this led to a broader taboo surrounding male-male love. This occurred due to the Japanese government’s strategic decisions to modernise through the adoption and adaption of Western knowledge, and this included sexology. Sexological texts in the late 19th and 20th Century, produced in Western Europe and North America and then adapted in Japan, taught that male and female homosexuality was unnatural and wrong, so Japanese society began to repress its long history of male-male erotic art due to concerns it was a legacy of Japan’s “barbaric” past. The taboo on male and female homosexuality only strengthened in the early 20th Century as the Japanese government increasingly invested into pro-natalist policies designed to increase the birth-rate and thus contribute to the war effort.

The 20th and early 21st Century was a time in which depictions of male-male intimacy and romance became increasingly sub-cultural. As I discuss in the section below, a vibrant gay erotic artistic tradition emerged within Japan’s gay male press. But we also see depictions of male-male intimacy appear in other unexpected places. For instance, from the 1970s onwards, romance and sex between beautiful male youths known as bishonen became an increasingly common theme in manga comics written for and by young women and this eventually became the genre known today as Boys Love (a considerable market). So while depictions of male-male sex and romance have been rather rare in mainstream media until very recently (post-2015 and the so-called LGBT Boom), there have always been spaces where this taboo has not been in effect.

Some of Tom of Finland’s iconic homoerotic art

Could you tell me more about the link between Tom of Finland’s work and Japanese gay erotic art – who influenced whom?

The work of Tom of Finland has been influential in Japanese gay circles for many years. Some of Tom of Finland’s work was circulated in the mid-20th century within informal coterie magazines in Japan and many gay erotic artists active within magazines such as Adon, Barazoku and Sabu (all magazines targeting a gay male audience published in the 1970s onwards) listed him as an inspiration. Quite a few Japanese gay erotic artists became aware of his work due to their engagement with North American and European publications, and the development of a hyper-muscular and hyper-masculine style within comics written for and by gay men in Japan (known as geikomi) clearly respond to the aesthetic influences of Tom of Finland’s oeuvre. That said, it is important to note that the style of Tom of Finland wasn’t copied verbatim to Japan and that Tom of Finland was part of a broader engagement with American Aesthetic magazines (beefcake mags) that occurred in Japanese gay erotic art. But the hyper-masculinity of Tom of Finland’s art appealed to Japanese gay erotic artists active in the mid to late 20th Century because it combatted widespread stereotypes of gay men as cross-dressing “women trapped in male bodies” that were common in Japan at the time.

One notable example of this is Tagame Gengoroh, who is Japan’s most famous gay erotic artist and perhaps the one who has achieved the highest level of mainstream success within both the art world and with mainstream readers (particularly his comic My Brother’s Husband). Tagame’s art is well-known for its bulky, hairy men performing sado-masochistic sex and he has openly listed both the US gay leather magazine Drummer and Tom of Finland as inspiring his own artistic practice. Tagame felt so strongly about the importance of Tom of Finland that he helped organise a special issue of the Japanese gay magazine G-Men in the 1990s dedicated to showcasing Tom of Finland’s erotic art. Tagame claims this magazine special issue was the first time that Tom of Finland’s work was legally distributed in Japan, and he worked with the Tom of Finland Foundation to make this possible. Tagame is also an important historian of gay erotic art in Japan and within his two-volume history of gay erotic art, Tagame places Tom of Finland as a central influence on Japanese gay erotic artistic practice.

Work by Mishima Go, Tagame Gengoroh and Jiraiya that explicitly responds to the work of Tom of Finland, on display in Tokyo at the exhibition “Ode to Tom of Finland” at The Container in Meguro

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