Queer Echoes: Koike Chikyoku, Unlikely Warrior Artist

Queer Echoes: Koike Chikyoku, Unlikely Warrior Artist

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An Edo-era woman with naginata and brush stands before the colors of the Lesbian flag, symbolizing the queer aspects of this story.
The story of a little-know artist-turned-warrior during the waning days of the samurai -- and who just might have been a queer woman.

You’ve probably heard these sarcastic remarks before, over an image of two amorous same-sex people: “Oh yes, what could be better than this, gals being pals” and “oh my god, they were roommates!”

These words are, generally, a reaction to queer-erasing historians. The type who are sure President Buchanan was just a lifelong bachelor with a good buddy named William R. King. Or that famed pirate Anne Bonny and companion Mary Read were just the best of platonic friends.

A modern-day lesbian pride banner. (source)

Yet the reality is that there is plenty of queerness in history, and Japanese history is no exception. There are also plenty of people who study queerness in history; some of us historians who do so, myself included, are queer ourselves. Though some would seek to erase us, and although terminology always changes, what we now call “queer” in English has always existed, in many forms and by many names, as long as there have been humans. We just need to know what to look for. It is because of this that my search for Koike Chikyoku, an artist and unlikely warrior, has been particularly haunting. I feel as though I’m seeing something familiar, across all the years since she lived.

Wandering Artist

Chikyoku was born in 1824, in Fukudome, in what’s now Hakusan, Ishikawa Prefecture. Her father was a warrior in service to the house of Maeda, who ruled that region, then called Kanazawa domain (also known as Kaga domain). At over 1 million koku in size, Kanazawa was the wealthiest domain in the Edo period, and the Maeda family was second in income only to the Tokugawa shogun himself.

Onuma Chinzan, adoptive brother to Koike Chikyoku. (source)

As a young woman, Chikyoku– also known as Shisetsu– traveled Japan in pursuit of art education. In Edo, her first stop, she became an adoptive sister to the poet Ōnuma Chinzan (1818-1891), who was known to many in the artistic and poetic “scene” of the time. While as an artist she isn’t a household name by any means, Chikyoku’s name appears in a 1913 appraisal guide listing the values of the work of historic and contemporary artists and calligraphers, which also suggests that she was an artist of at least some renown.

Stylistically, her work is classed in the Chinese-influenced black-ink nanga style. Nanga is not the same as mangananga is also known as bunjinga, “literati painting.” The artists who worked in the style considered themselves literati, after the reputation of their Chinese counterparts. Click here for a sample of Chikyoku’s art: the brush portrait of flowers at center is hers.

“Moonlight Bamboo,” by Ike no Taiga (1723-1776).
Taiga and his wife Tokuyama Gyokuran (1727-1784) are arguably the most famous nanga artists. (source)

Who Was the Real Koike Chikyoku?

It is in trying to piece together something of her personal life that I found a recurring theme in all the biographical sketches I could access. Ishikawa ken-shi (A History of Ishikawa Prefecture) Vol. 3 says “Chikyoku detested men. It was her custom, even in lodgings on the road, to put up a sign cordoning off her quarters and forbidding their entry.” Other biographical dictionaries take a very similar tack. But Teisei zōho Nihon bijutsu gaka jinmei shōden, an early Taisho era biographical dictionary of Japanese artists, goes into a bit more detail:


“It was in her nature to loathe marriage; she remained single for the rest of her life. Her usual distaste for men was an intense habit, and even on the road, she would rope off her bedroom and did not allow men to enter. Even the male owners of these establishments were inconvenienced by this inclination.”

The “confirmed bachelor” trope is a well-established euphemism in English for a gay man, and spinsters were often lesbians. The “man-hating lesbian” trope is itself a well-known, well-worn negative trope. Even so, some non-male queer folks I know today do feel strongly about wanting to avoid sharing close quarters with men.

What’s more, whatever the truth about how she might have identified, the fact of the matter remains that Japanese society in Chikyoku’s time, and to some extent today, expects people to marry and carry on family lines and names. She did not become a nun, where celibacy would’ve been unremarkable, nor did she just happen to not marry. She vocally detested marriage and went to great lengths to keep men away from what would’ve been her most intimate settings. Standing out like this also goes against the grain in Japanese culture. After all, a familiar adage has it that deru kugi wa utareru (出る釘は打たれる) — the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

In short, because Chikyoku’s actions stand out like this, they merit closer consideration for anyone wanting to account for queerness in history rather than erasing it.

But read on; this isn’t the only thing that gets my attention about her.

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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020). She hosts Friday Night History on anchor.fm/fridaynighthistory and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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