Writing the Love of Boys: Origins of Bishōnen Culture in Modernist Japanese Literature

Writing the Love of BoysAuthor: Jeffrey Angles
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
ISBN: 9780816669707
Released: February 2011

I’ve recently become rather enamoured with Edogawa Rampo and his writings which is how I happened to come across Jeffrey Angles’ Writing the Love of Boys: Origins of Bishōnen Culture in Modernist Japanese Literature. Published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2011, the volume is an extension of Angles’ 2004 PhD dissertation “Writing the Love of Boys: Representations of Male-Male Desire in the Literature of Murayama Kaita and Edogawa Rampo.” Angles is currently an associate professor of Japanese literature, language, and translation at Western Michigan University. His primary research interests include translation, modern Japanese poetry, and romance and sexuality in Japanese literature, and especially the portrayal of same-sex desire. All of these subjects are at least touched upon if not thoroughly explored in Writing the Love of Boys. They are all topics that I am particularly interested in as well, so I was rather pleased to discover Writing the Love of Boys while searching for more information on Rampo and his works.

In Writing the Love of Boys, Angles examines the expression of same-sex desire, and specifically male-male desire, in Japanese literature during the late Taishō era (1912-1926) and early Shōwa period (1926-1989). In doing so he focuses on the work of three authors in particular: Murayama Kaita (1896-1919), who was also a poet and a painter; Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965), an incredibly influential writer of detective and mystery fiction among other things; and Inagaki Taruho (1900-1977), whose avant-garde work is noted as being particularly innovative. All three of these authors produced work that either incorporated or directly addressed male-male desire of both homosocial and homoerotic nature. Writing during a time in which attitudes towards sexuality in Japan were changing due to the influence of new medical and psychological approaches, Kaita, Rampo, and Taruho portrayed male-male desire in a way that was different from their immediate predecessors. Placing them within this historical and literary context, Angles also shows how their work would influence creators who followed them as well.

Another subject that is particularly important in Writing the Love of Boys is the erotic grotesque nonsense movement and fad of the 1920s and 1930s. Ero guro literature allowed its authors to explore the bizarre and the strange, including sexual desire that was considered by society to be perverse. However, although Kaita, Rampo, and Taruho were all involved in the rise of ero guro literature, Angles argues that their portrayal of male-male desire was frequently sympathetic and even subversive within the context of the genre which generally used sexuality for the purpose of titillation. Of the three authors that Angles focuses on in Writing the Love of Boys, it is Rampo who is the most well-known in English and who has had more of his work translated. Reading Angles’ analyses and translated excerpts of these three authors’ work, I can’t help but lament the fact that more of their writing isn’t currently available in English. But even though most of the works discussed in Writing the Love of Boys have yet to be released in translation, it is still interesting and valuable to learn about their place and importance within the literary and queer history of Japan.

For me, one of the most intriguing parts of Writing the Love of Boys was the literary lineage that Angles outlines, beginning with Kaita, who influenced Rampo, who in turn collaborated with Taruho, who was a direct inspiration to Takemiya Keiko, one of the creators whose work in the 1970s would lay the foundation for the entire boys’ love genre. In fact, much of the conclusion of Writing the Love of Boys is devoted to the lasting influence and legacies of Kaita, Rampo, and Taruho that can be seen in boys’ love manga. Angles credits Taruho as one of the authors who began developing an aesthetic of male-male desire for a female audience; several of his stories, including his debut, were published in magazines for women. This is one of the links that Angles uses to tie these three authors to the more recently developed genre of stories featuring male-male love primarily written for women by women. To some extent it does feel a little tangential to the work as a whole, and it was somewhat jarring to jump from the 1930s to the 1970s and beyond, but there is a legitimate connection. I found Writing the Love of Boys to be incredibly fascinating; it ended up addressing more of my interests than I initially realized it would—queer theory, ero guro, and even manga, in addition to many other topics.

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  1. Well here’s another one like Wandering Son I could write an essay in the comments on the presuppositions and thought processes behind you’re review Ash but wouldn’t want to distract from your blog’s stated purpose yet again (LOL)

    • Really? I think this is a pretty accurate short summary of the book, so I’d be interested to know where you think Ash went wrong with it.

      In any case, it was a very interesting book and I recommend it if you’re interested in these writers or the portrayal of male-male desire in the literature of the time. Although I do think that Angles somewhat oversells the connection of these stories with modern BL.

      • I would agree that connection is somewhat oversold. Angles points out some very specific cases of inspiration and adaptation, and I do think there is some connection, but I remain unsure how big of an influence these authors had on the genre as a whole.

    • I don’t think our differences in presuppositions actually come into play here much at all. Writing the Love of Boys is an academic work looking at how the portrayal of male-male desire in Japanese literature was changing in the early twentieth century. It isn’t making moral arguments, simply historical ones.

  2. I’ve been curious to read more of Inagaki Taruho’s work since reading the short story of his included in the anthology New Writing in Japan (edited by Geoffrey Bownas and Mishima Yukio – which should give some idea of how ‘new’ it is…) The story (Icarus) was pretty wonderfully surreal. I’d recommend it (and really the whole anthology is strong), though this particular story didn’t touch on any male-male themes. I don’t suppose this book gave any clues about what else of Inagaki’s might be available in English?

    • I was curious about this as well! Here’s what I’ve been able to track down of Inagaki Taruho in English so far:

      “Icarus” in New Writing in Japan
      “The Inō Residence, Or, The Competition with a Ghost” in Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Volume 1: Tales of Old Edo
      One Thousand and One-Second Stories
      “Prince-Nez Glasses” in Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly. Vol. 7, no. 1.
      “A Shop That Sells Stars” in Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913–1938
      “The Story of R-chan and S” in Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913–1938

      I haven’t actually read any of his work yet (other than the excerpts in Writing the Love of Boys), but I look forward to doing so!

      • Thanks for doing that legwork for me!
        I’ll certainly be looking into these -too bad that copies of his only complete book appear to be cringe-inducingly expensive…

        • That they are. Happily, I was able to get my hands on a copy through my library. That might be your best bet, too.

        • I was able to track down one more!

          Miroku was published by Rodent Press in 1996 (ISBN 1887289240). This’ll be another one that’s very hard to find. I was able to borrow a copy using interlibrary loan, though, so I can confirm that it really does exist. :)

  3. After much thought, I have decided to remove an entire exchange between two commenters here on this post. Leaving the heated, personal arguments public would do nothing but continue to foster ill-will and distract from the purpose of this blog (that is, sharing my exploration of Japanese literature and culture), neither of which I want to happen. I have never felt the need to remove comments for this reason before, and I sincerely hope that is a decision that I won’t need to make in the future. Please keep conversations civil and treat each other with respect even if you don’t agree with one another.


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