“A Third Gender–Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints” is a mind-bending exhibit which resonates today.
The Royal Ontario Museum has loaned its extraordinary collection of 65 Japanese woodblock prints to the New York branch of the Japan Society. The exhibit focuss on wakashu (“young beauties”) –a unique “third” gender. The notion of gender fluidity — that it’s not necessary to identify as either male or female, that gender can be expressed as a continuum — is the essence of these woodblock prints. They challenge modern notions that male and female are obvious either-or identities.
Wakashu were most often handsome teenage boys (and sometimes adolescent girls) who were highly desired by both older men and women. The young women who participated as wakashu were most likely the daughters of geisha.These young boys and girls did not carry the social responsibilities of adults, but were nonetheless sexually mature and sexually ambidextrous. During this stage of life, before full-fledged adulthood, it was socially permissible to have sex with either men or women and to engage in crossdressing. Later on, the wakashu self-identified as they wished.
The most discerning feature to identify a beautiful figure as wakashu is the hairstyle, an essential but subtle visual cue in woodblock prints. Combs and hairpins as well as very elaborate hairdos were traditionally markers for identifying young women. Forelocks or slightly carved bald spots, were markers for identifying young male wakashu. Young women could also dress as samurai but with a tell-tale obi (waist sash) tied in traditional feminine fashion. Wakashu males would also wear long-sleeved kimonos like unmarried women,. In several prints, you have to look closely to find the shaved triangle in the hair, or spot a sword tucked in a geisha wakashu’s sash (impersonating a female). In erotic woodblocks (shunga), the genitals telegraph the gender.
Many permutations of gender and sexuality were acceptable: men or women in liaisons with wakashu; female geisha dressing like male wakashu engaging in sex with male patrons; male prostitutes cross-dressing as women; and even a male Kabuki “actor” impersonating a woman who pretends at one point to be a man aggressively initiating intercourse. Such fluidity of gender identity is deliberate, playful and often arousing.
The prints range from lively humorous scenes of daily life or classical myths (mitate-e) to uninhibited portrayals of desire. Sometimes the young wakashu males practice feminine arts such as flower-arranging or playing the samisen . A screen shows several wakashu surrounding a Buddhist monk, tickling him and plying him with alcohol, suggesting foreplay before male-male sex (not prohibited in Buddhism). A young woman passes a love note to her male wakashu lover behind the back of an older artist who is signing his name to a painting. A male wakashu dreams of sex with a famous prostitute, while another woman tenderly covers him with a jacket. One of the artworks at the very end of the show, dating back to the 1800s, showcases lesbian intercourse with a dildo, demonstrating an example of non-heteronormative sex at the end of the Edo period.
The show reveals how elastic the ideas of gender were before Japan adopted Western sexual mores in the late 1800s. More rigid notions of gender and “acceptable” sexual expression followed. The tradition of wakashu ended. Homosexuality was outlawed. The suppression of this sexual component of Japanese culture runs so deep that most Japanese are unaware of the historical existence of the wakashu.
This Japan Society exhibit is a corrective to past misidentifications of wakashu as young women as well as a portal to a new world of gender fluidity. Walking through “A Third Gender” is a reckoning with categories, definitions and how uncertain the lines between genders can be. This exhibit is not to be missed.