Nanpa: A History

Nantonaku

Nanpa (軟派): like genki and kawaii, it’s a word that everyone in Japan knows, whether they speak the language or not. In today’s parlance, nanpa means something like “the act of a man hitting on female strangers [especially in the street].” However, this modern usage (along with the modern habit of writing it in katakana: ナンパ) only sprung up in the last two or three decades. The word itself is much, much older.

Nanpa apparently dates back to Edo time but was certainly in popular use during the Meiji period. Back then, it was written in kanji (軟派) and used in relation to its antithesis — kōha (硬派). The words mean “soft faction” and “hard faction,” respectively, and at the time, denoted diametrically opposed philosophical outlooks. Softs were thoughtful, introverted and open to compromise; Hards were aggressive, inflexible, and beat up Softs for kicks.

You can find numerous examples of the words nanpa and kōha being used to bisect various social groups, ranging from newspaper reporters (Softs did society and the arts, Hards did politics) to black marketeers operating in early 20th-century China (Softs dealt drugs, Hards ran guns). The usage that eventually evolved into the modern meaning, however, was the one that applied to young men. Simply put: Softs liked women, and Hards didn’t.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Hards liked some women just fine: mothers, wives, and respectable spinsters. They were happy enough to jump through societal hoops and set up their own household, complete with standard-issue heirs. But they were only really comfortable in the company of other men.

Softs, on the other hand, loved women, and I mean loved women. They dressed sharp, preferred conversation to fighting, and always tried to be where the women were. (It’s worth noting that nanpa was also used as an adjective to describe women who would respond to such advances.)

In his novel Vita Sexualis, Mori Ōgai put it like this:

The Softs were the ones who looked at those funny [dirty] pictures. Back then, booklenders would pile books high on their back and walk around bent over under the weight like pilgrims. The bottom of the pile was a box with a drawer. This drawer was where they always kept the funny pictures. Many Softs borrowed these from the booklenders, and some even had private collections of books like that. The Hards wouldn’t have dreamed of looking at pictures like that. They would read books about a boy named Hirata Sangorō instead. These related a tale of love between this kid Sangorō and an older guy, a tough guy with his hair in the shamisen-pick style. It had jealousy. It had samurai posturing. I think maybe the two of them died in battle in the end, after a series of lesser tragedies. There were pictures in this book too, but they didn’t show the really ugly scenes.

Maybe it’s a little too simplistic to view this situation through post-Sexual Revolution eyes and decide that Soft = straight / Hard = gay, but you could certainly make a strong case for homoeroticism on the Hard side. What separated Softs from Hards was not “sexuality” in the modern sense, but their approach to the “gender line” in a broader sense. And note that at the time, the men who crossed into the company of women, the Softs, were the ones considered decadent and unmanly. Not that they cared.

As the decades rolled on and Japan’s sexual politics changed, this philosophical division between Softs and Hards became less relevant. Practical issues of who was willing to take up arms and join the (hetero-)Sexual Revolution took precedence. Finally, sometime in the ’70s or ’80s, nanpa stopped being something you were and became something you did — on street corners. Of its 19th-century roots, only a faint sense of mustachioed disapproval remains.

Matt TREYVAUD
December 5, 2007

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

17 Responses

  1. NPC Says:

    Wow, that’s quite fascinating. Great article!

  2. Jrim Says:

    Well, I guess if you want to take it back even further, you could draw links between the Hards and the practice of shudo among the samurai classs. Homosexual love was seen as more virtuous and beautiful than the squalid heterosexual alternative – check some of Ihara Saikaku’s (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) stories… almost absurdly homoerotic stuff.

  3. Chrononautic Log 改 » Blog Archive » The Hard and the Soft Says:

    [...] Matt Treyvaud, “Nampa: A History,” [...]

  4. Matt Says:

    Oh, sure, you can draw the line back to all kinds of places — samurai, priests (all those chigo stories in the 醒睡笑). Hardly uniquely in Japan either! I just don’t have any evidence that they actually used the same word.

    (As an aside, I’d argue that the Soft philosophy first started to come together as an opposition to this idea when Edo (and to a lesser extent other urban centers) started enjoying the peace dividend. That was when you had real critical masses of merchants etc. who had plenty of money but hadn’t been taught since childhood to be an uptight “nobility”. Making fun of samurai for not knowing how to act around women, and particularly around the women of Yoshiwara, is a very common theme in Edo comedy.)

  5. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    Ah thank you for reminding me of Saikaku.
    Had sort of forgotten about 男色大鑑

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    This post may explain why American Football is the most possible homoerotic thing you can be into.

  7. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    I think you meant Arena Football?

  8. bathrobe Says:

    I always thought of nanpa as meaning “pick up” (a woman). And you can do it parties as much as on street corners. The main thing is, you hit on someone you don’t know (no mutual acquaintance, no introduction, etc.) This was probably much less common an occurrence in traditional Japan than in the West, where holding parties where anyone can come and chatting up the women you find there are a much more common and acceptable practice.

  9. bathrobe Says:

    I would translate “nanpa sareta” as “I got picked up”. :)

  10. R Says:

    The origins of Hard Gay???

  11. Matt Says:

    Bathrobe, that is true about the location thing, although I think that using it for places other than street corners etc. is (or at least began as) a jokey metaphorical extension of the original meaning. You know: “And how did you meet Naoto?” Describe it as nanpa and enjoy big laughs all round.

    Also an interesting point about the distinction between “hit on” and “pick up”. You are right; it can be used to cover the whole spectrum there. But success is not required to qualify as nanpa; try googling ナンパされたけど and note all the sentences that end with “I ignored him”, “I was busy shopping [so I ignored him]” etc.

    (逆ナン might have a higher implication of success, if only because it’s much rarer for women to spend the whole day hitting on guy after guy after guy…)

  12. W. David MARX Says:

    The terms Nanpa and Gyakunan seem to assign activity and passivity to the male and female genders, respectively.

  13. Matt Says:

    Right — active male is the unmarked form, active female needs to be marked with “gyaku” (meaning “reverse” or “backwards”)

  14. j.jones Says:

    Nanpa isnt just picking someone up, its something Neets do in shibuya, its not something your classic salaryman would admit doing (maybe he would if he was in 金融 or 人材派遣) but then most リーマン also have little or no chance to meet women and marry the girl they sat next to in homeroom (or they goucon in properly adult fashion). While gyakunan still makes sense, i get the feeling its one of those words like 妻 or 主人 which is slowly falling out of the standard lexicon. the girls i know who do it just call it nanpa.

    of course the zizekian inverse of marxy;s point about the assignment of passivity is the popularity of the S&M porn which flips the script, as it were (痴女など)

  15. bathrobe Says:

    Yes, you’re right. I guess ‘hit on’ is better because ‘pick up’ implies success :)

  16. bathrobe Says:

    There is, however, a linguistic aspect to this. It’s a bit like “persuade, convince”, where the English implies not only an attempt to change someone’s opinion or course of action, but a SUCCESSFUL attempt. If I understand rightly, this is not the case in Japanese, where 説得 refers to an attempt, successful or otherwise. The use of “persuade” for “attempt to persuade” is a common enough mistake among learners of English.