Mori Ranmaru and Wakashudō

Mori Ranmaru’s official artwork from Samurai Warriors 4

Mori Ranmaru is one of the most famous figures to come from the Sengoku Jidai, almost as famous as the lord he served, Oda Nobunaga. Much like others from this era, his life is shrouded in mystery, with a lot of what we know coming from Edo Period folklore, including what he looked like. He apparently had flawless white skin, his beauty unmatched, and even Nobunaga said that he held a “fragrance as lovely as an orchid”.(1) It almost sounds like Ranmaru was a woman, no?

Well, no, he was not…however, it is highly possible, and believed by many historians, that Oda Nobunaga and Mori Ranmaru had a homosexual relationship.

Mori Ranmaru is famous mainly because he is one of the most famous wakashu in the Sengoku Jidai. In this article, we are going to look at the practice of wakashudō, and how it plays into the life of the famous page to the Demon King.

What is wakashudō?

A samurai steals a kiss from his lover. The wakashu is in red.

Wakashudō can be best translated to as “the way of young men”.(2) Similar to ancient Greece, the samurai would take on young apprentices, or pages, and if so desired, would turn the relationship into a sexual one. This was not a practice that started with the samurai, but rather one they adopted from the Buddhist monasteries, who indulged in “chigo”, i.e., “a deified adolescent boy who formed a transactional, sexual relationship with a high-ranking priest”.(3) Notice the difference in the language: chigo refers to a young boy, ranging somewhere from ten to seventeen years of age, while wakashu refers to a young man, ranging somewhere from thirteen to as high as twenty years of age.(4) I make this distinction for a couple of reasons. First, it is not entirely clear what the age range was for such practices, so finding a source that spelled this out clearly helps for anyone who is wanting to dive into the homoerotic chigo monogatari genre that came about during the Edo Period. Secondly, it is to show that it is not necessarily pederasty when applying the ages to the modern definition of adolescence. As Sachi Schmidt-Hori perfectly states in her book: “The fact is that analyzing the chigo system through the lens of “child sexual abuse” is anachronistic, as teenagers were not considered “children” in medieval Japan.”(5)

Much like other things in Japan, this practice came from China. Buddhist monks who studied in China picked up the practice there and brought it back to Japan.(6) Interestingly, the samurai class only began to take on their own version during the Ashikaga Shogunate, starting with its third shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.(7) It seemed to transition to the samurai class with ease, mainly because many of the samurai were brought up with Buddhist teachings, with some even being sent to monasteries as adolescents.(8) This is not the only reason for taking on a young male lover though. One of the main reasons has to do with their gender. While most samurai and daimyō during this time took on concubines alongside their wives, this could cause issues within their homes, for there was a sense of rivalry between the first wife and the concubines. A male lover would not bring such troubles to the household, nor would the wives see their husband’s male lover as a rival.(9) The other reasons dealt with the absence of women on the battlefield and in large city castles. Of course, men were away from women for long periods of time during military campaigns, and especially during the Edo Period, there were more men in city castles than women, hence how homosexuality became more widespread during this era than the previous ones.(10)

While the relationships were usually sexual, that was not the only benefit. The young apprentice would learn how to be a samurai from his older master, and the relationship would only turn sexual if the young boy agreed to it. It is also interesting to note that while the relationship between the two was exclusive until the young boy came of age, sex with women was allowed for both parties.(11) Once the young boy came of age, the sexual relationship was supposed to end, and they both were free to take on new male partners for themselves.

Some things have not changed, no matter how many centuries pass, for there was only one group in Japan that had issue with this widespread homosexuality: the Christians. Nothing got the missionaries blood boiling more than this, and their stance against it angered many daimyō who indulged in the practice. Once such instance comes from Christianity’s first days in Japan, when St. Francis Xavier arrived in Yamaguchi in 1550. He and Brother Juan Fernandez preached in the city streets and the local lord, Ouchi Yoshitaka came out to listen to them, only to leave once the Christians began condemning those who practiced sodomy.(12)

Many famous names from the Sengoku Jidai have either practiced wakashudō or have appeared in wakashudō literature of the Edo Period, with most of the authors focusing on very famous men. Some of these include:

  • Ashikaga Yoshiteru (which has been confirmed with his page, Odachidono, who died protecting his lord during the coup on June 17, 1565)
  • Tokugawa Ieyasu
  • Hosokawa Fujitaka
  • Takeda Shingen
  • Toyotomi Hideyoshi
  • Toyotomi Hidetsugu
  • Uesugi Kenshin
  • Maeda Toshiie
  • Fukushima Masanori
  • Miyamoto Musashi(13)

The most famous out of all these men, however, is Oda Nobunaga and his relationship with Mori Ranmaru.

Mori Ranmaru

Mori Ranmaru by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (ca. 1850)

How does wakashudō play into the life of Mori Ranmaru? Well, it is his whole identity.

Interestingly, there is very little factual information known about this famous page, with much of what we know about him coming from Edo Period folklore. In fact, his death is a mystery as well, for even the Mori clan’s official records do not list a single death in the clan on June 21, 1582, the day that Ranmaru apparently perished alongside Nobunaga.

Let’s start with what we do know. Mori Ranmaru (1565?-June 21, 1582?), also known as Mori Naritoshi was third son to Mori Yoshinari and Myōkō-ni (Hayashi Michiyasu’s daughter), born in the Haguri District in Mino.(14) At the age of six, he and his younger brothers, Rikimaru (Nagauji) and Bōmaru (Nagataka) entered Oda Nobunaga’s service as pages. The famous record of Nobunaga’s life, The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga, mentions Ranmaru several times, but only mentions the times he served his lord as a messenger and nothing more. In 1581, Ranmaru was given an estate in Ōmi and 500 koku, along with a promotion to being Nobunaga’s secretary.(15) It is from here that things become a bit hazy. Popular belief is that Ranmaru perished at Honnōji alongside Nobunaga when Akechi Mitsuhide betrayed them on June 21, 1582, and Ranmaru’s death was even recorded in The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga, however, it does not state how he died.(16) Yet, as previously stated, the Mori clan’s own records to not have any deaths listed for that year, including Rikimaru and Bōmaru, who were also at Honnōji that fateful day. Another record states that he managed to escape Honnōji with the women.(17) Considering that the events of the Honnōji Incident are shrouded in mystery, it is just accepted (at least until evidence is found that states otherwise) that Mori Ranmaru died either defending Nobunaga or via seppuku after acting as his lord’s second at Honnōji.

We see more of Ranmaru’s character in the stories from the Edo Period, many of which revolve around his relationship with Nobunaga. One of the most famous stories involves another samurai who has had interesting theories brought up about his gender in recent years: Uesugi Kenshin.(18) According to the story, Ranmaru left Nobunaga’s side once to spy on the Uesugi disguised as a monk. However, his disguise did not hide his beauty, which Kenshin instantly fell in love with. Kenshin wanted Ranmaru to join him, but he faked his death so that he could return to Nobunaga.(19) Considering his age (Kenshin died in 1578), Ranmaru could have been disguised as a chigo instead of a monk, but this is only a guess.

Ranmaru is often depicted as a page who is extremely loyal and never tried to make his lord look foolish. Two such tales focus on this aspect of Ranmaru’s servitude to Nobunaga. In the first story, Nobunaga ordered Ranmaru to close the door to his room despite the door being closed to begin with. Ranmaru opened it with a deliberate clap against the frame before closing it again. When Nobunaga asked him why he did that, Ranmaru stated that the clap was to show Nobunaga that the door was closed without verbally saying so and the door was closed again to complete his order.(20) Another tale is very similar to previous story. Ranmaru happened to be carrying a large box of mikan and Nobunaga spotted him. His lord teased him, saying that a box that large would cause him to fall over. Just after Nobunaga said these words, Ranmaru fell over. Nobunaga teased his page for his clumsiness, but Ranmaru recovered and told his lord that he was fine, continuing to carry the large box. Again, Ranmaru purposely took a fall instead of proving to his lord that he could carry the box without issue.(21)

According to these Edo Period stories, Ranmaru was a perceptive young man who picked up on the budding problems with Mitsuhide about two years prior. Some go back a bit further, stating that Ranmaru and his mother were wary of Honnōji a decade prior to the betrayal.(22) In the stories, Ranmaru picks up on the problems with Mitsuhide and tries his best to warn his lord about the brewing storm, yet, despite being Nobunaga’s favorite page, his lord pays no mind to his warnings. Ranmaru even surprised Nobunaga when he wrote on a piece of paper that he wanted Sakamoto in Ōmi and 80,000 koku as a present, rather than the expected answer of passion or love: it was another warning to Nobunaga about Mitsuhide.(23)

We all know that Nobunaga did not listen to his beloved page except when the betrayal took place. In almost every story, and even The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga, Ranmaru is the one who notifies Nobunaga of Mitsuhide’s betrayal.(24) Ranmaru’s life usually ends either defending his lord, or killing himself after helping his master end his own life.

Mori Ranmaru as he appears in the anime, Yasuke

The stories regarding the love affair between Nobunaga and Ranmaru continue to this day, however, when their story is brought to the West, it tends to be downplayed. In Kicho & Nobunaga by Rumi Komonz, Ranmaru is mentioned at times towards the end of the book, however, the book is told from the perspective of Nōhime, Nobunaga’s wife, who only speculates about the type of relationship he and her husband share.(25) In 2021, Yasuke came to Netflix, and it too mentioned the relationship that Ranmaru and Nobunaga shared, however, it was done in a fashion that did not display much open affection (i.e., just hand holding and sultry side-eyed glances).(26) It is honestly disappointing, but as I stated at the beginning of this article, the wakashudō relationships tend to get compared to ancient Greece which brings up pederasty, which in the modern world, has very negative connotations. Yet, if the birth year for Ranmaru is correct (1565), that means that Ranmaru was only seventeen when he perished at Honnōji. During this time, the “Coming of Age” Ceremony, known as genpuku for men, could take place from as young as ten years old to as old as twenty.(27) Considering how most records refer to Ranmaru as Naritoshi, this could mean that he had passed into adulthood, but still maintained a homosexual relationship with Nobunaga. Again, like with most things that are talked about on this website, it is only speculation until evidence comes forth either proving or denying these claims.

Mori Ranmaru is an interesting figure for much of his history comes from romanticized tales of a young boy serving his lord until the bitter end, where they are betrayed by a man they once called a friend. His story has been kept alive through the homoerotic tales from the Edo Period, being the tragic hero in many of these tales. Yet, in an era of Japanese history that is full of war and betrayal, to be remembered as a loyal man who undyingly loved his lord is not necessarily a bad thing.

Sources

  1. “Ranmaru Mori”, Koei Wiki. https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Ranmaru_Mori, last visited 6/23/2022
  2. Watanabe, Tsuneo & Jun’ichi Iwata. The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality (1989), p. 48
  3. Schmidt-Hori, Sachi. Tales of Idolized Boys: Male-Male Love in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Narratives (2021), Kindle Edition, p. 16
  4. Watanabe, Tsuneo & Jun’ichi Iwata. The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality (1989), p. 47
  5. Schmidt-Hori, Sachi. Tales of Idolized Boys: Male-Male Love in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Narratives (2021), Kindle Edition, p. 53
  6. “History of Same-Sex Samurai Love in Edo Japan”, AllAboutJapan.com. https://allabout-japan.com/en/article/5187/, last visited 6/23/2022
  7. Watanabe, Tsuneo & Jun’ichi Iwata. The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality (1989), p. 48
  8. https://www.tofugu.com/japan/gay-samurai/, last visited 6/22/2022
  9. Schmidt-Hori, Sachi. Tales of Idolized Boys: Male-Male Love in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Narratives (2021), Kindle Edition, p. 87
  10. https://www.tofugu.com/japan/gay-samurai/, last visited 6/22/2022
  11. “The Gay of the Samurai”, Tofugu.com. https://www.tofugu.com/japan/gay-samurai/, last visited 6/22/2022
  12. Dougill, John. In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival (2012), p. 30
  13. “The Gay of the Samurai”, Tofugu.com. https://www.tofugu.com/japan/gay-samurai/, last visited 6/23/2022
  14. “Ranmaru Mori”, Koei Wiki. https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Ranmaru_Mori, last visited 6/23/2022
  15. https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Ranmaru_Mori, last visited 6/23/2022
  16. Ōta, Gyūichi. The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga (2012), p. 470
  17. “Ranmaru Mori”, Koei Wiki. https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Ranmaru_Mori, last visited 6/23/2022
  18. For more information on the “Female Uesugi Kenshin Theory”, check out our article here.
  19. “Ranmaru Mori”, Koei Wiki. https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Ranmaru_Mori, last visited 6/23/2022
  20. “Ranmaru Mori”, Koei Wiki. https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Ranmaru_Mori, last visited 6/23/2022
  21. “Ranmaru Mori”, Koei Wiki. https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Ranmaru_Mori, last visited 6/23/2022
  22. “Ranmaru Mori”, Koei Wiki. https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Ranmaru_Mori, last visited 6/23/2022
  23. “Ranmaru Mori”, Koei Wiki. https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Ranmaru_Mori, last visited 6/23/2022
  24. Ōta, Gyūichi. The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga (2012), p. 469
  25. To learn more about the historical fiction novel by Rumi Komonz, visit this page for the first edition and this page for the second edition.
  26. For our review on Yasuke, click here.
  27. “Genpuku”, Wikipedia.com. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genpuku, last visited 6/23/2022