I have to admit that I’m not good with dogs. I was attacked by an alsatian when I was about 7 (when you’re that young an alsatian is as high as your shoulder) and I still have nightmares about dogs. As a complete contrast, there’s one historical lgbt individual who is said to have loved dogs so much that he acquired the nickname of “the Dog Shogun”. His actual name was Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709) and he was the 5th shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty.
As I have found out time and time again in the 40 years that I have been a dedicated historian what is written and accepted as historical fact often concentrates on one culturally biased opinion. In the case of Tsunayoshi that bias was contained in a very influential document called “Sanno Gaiki”. This had been accepted as the authoritative account of Tsunayoshi’s reign. It was written after he had died and was more of a critical parody than a history of his reign, and even though people recognised this as the time, people and historians gradually began to believe every word of it.
Despite the fact that Japanese historians just a century after his death had tried to rehabilitate Tsunayoshi’s reputation “Sanno Gaiki” had become too fixed in the popular mind for it not to take root. By the end of the 20th century many historians were attempting to “correct” this fake history.
Perhaps the biggest effect on Tsunayoshi’s reputation is his fondness for dogs and his famous nickname “the Dog Shogun”. From being an insult to being turned into a by-name for animal compassion this nickname has various legends surrounding it.
The origin of this nickname centre round the “laws of compassion” introduced by Tsunayoshi from 1687 onwards. These were a series of laws which gave protection to animals and punishments for animal cruelty, including death. Even though later historians concentrated on the protection of dogs the laws also included protection of cruelty against other animals - birds, horses and even grasshoppers. Protection for abandoned children was also a large part of these laws.
The dog connection is compounded by the fact that Tsunayoshi was born in the Japanese Year of the Dog. The “Sanno Gaiki” added to this by fabricating the legend that a Buddhist priest had told Tsunayoshi’s mother that the shogun had mistreated dogs in a former life and the death of his son and heir was a punishment. The priest said that only laws against cruelty to dogs would lift the curse of a childless shogun.
Dogs seemed to have a dual identity during the rule of the shoguns. On the one hand dogs were closely associated with the samurai and were a symbol of their ferocity. The samurai would breed and train hundreds of dogs for hunting. Over time there were too many for the samurai to keep and many dogs were either killed or left to stray the countryside.
Cities were often overrun with stray dogs. They attacked other animals and even children in search of food. Cruelty to dogs was already punishable and Shogun Tsunayoshi’s laws of compassion added an additional condition which stated that not feeding stray dogs was also cruelty and punishable. Most people, however, were under the impression that feeding any dog would make them legally responsible for the animal and avoided them. This led to an increase in stray dogs. The solution was to build massive dog shelters and kennels. When I say massive I mean that the kennels housed over 100,000 stray dogs.
Unfortunately for these dogs, when Tsunayoshi died his son and successor closed down all the kennels. It’s not certain what happened to all the dogs. The location of these kennels is commemorated today in a set of statue dogs outside Nakano City Hall in Tokyo (pictured below). The kennels may be the main reason why the Japanese went on to associate Tsunayoshi with them more than any other animal.
So that’s why Tokugawa Tsunayoshi became known as the Dog Shogun as a name of shame – a man who preferred dogs to people. But his reputation was smeared further by accusation of him promoting his male lovers to high office. What’s the truth about that?
As a samurai Tsunayoshi was no stranger to same-sex activity. In something very much like the ancient Greek practice whereby soldiers take younger male lovers the samurai had a similar system called shodu. As with the Greek practice shodu was more a rite of passage for the younger partner and, also as with the Greeks, it developed into a life-long platonic friendship. Neither practices can be said to be truly homosexual in our modern sense of the word but was strongly homo-social. The fact that both practices saw the man-youth sexual relationship as normal is what makes it a big part in lgbt heritage of our understanding of human sexuality.
Tsunayoshi is known to have had several young male lovers as well as a wife and several concubines. That, too, was normal. The claim made by a ruler’s critics of lovers and favourites being promoted to high office is common in most societies, even if there’s no evidence of same-sex activity. However, there seems to be hints in Tsunayoshi’s behaviour that may indicate that he did prefer male partners.
One of these hints is his friendship with Yanagisawa Yoshigasu, one of the many attendants at the shogun’s court. Yoshigasu was from a samurai family of imperial descent. He and the future shogun Tsunayoshi met in 1665 when he was 7 years old and Tsunayoshi was 19. Later historians also painted Yoshigasu as a bad court official though his reputation has been undergoing the same revision as the shogun.
Yoshigasu was a general attendant at the court. In 1675 he became a page at Tsunayoshi’s residence. Five years later when Tsunayoshi became shogun Yoshigasu joined him in Edo palace and soon began to rise in the hierarchy of attendants. He had no formal training in government or politics yet in 1688 shogun Tsunayoshi appointed him as his Great Chamberlain. This angered many officials and samurai families.
While there’s no actual evidence of a gay relationship between the two men in our modern sense, one may have been carried out in the form of the traditional samurai shudo before Tsunayoshi became shogun. There was a strong personal connections between the two through a shared interest in Confucian classics, though this alone is hardly enough to propel a humble attendant to the high office of Great Chamberlain. So, perhaps there was more going on between them.
As in a lot of historical instances evidence to prove a relationship one way or another is lacking, and the change in social attitudes to everything from sexuality to politics changes with each generation.
Given that the samurai code of shudo with its same-sex relationships was common in 17th century Japan it is unlikely that the Dog Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, didn’t have male lovers.