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.