A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints at the Japan Society

Japanese garden and pond greet visitors to opening night of “A Third Gender” at the Japan Society. @ Sallerina for WhereNYC

Cover image:

Unidentified Artist,
Merry-Making in the Mansion (Teinai yūraku zu),
attributed to Kan’ei era (1624–1644). Gold and pigm
ent on paper. Royal
Ontario Museum,
989.24.46. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum,

T.S. Eliot famously proclaimed April the cruelest of months, and while I would argue that March is far more onerous, April is indeed fickle. Should you find yourself the victim of cabin fever, staring contemplatively at the dust on your beach umbrella and picnic basket, you would do well to pass an afternoon at the Japan Society. Step into the Society’s natural light-filled lobby, complete with bamboo plants and a small pond, and make your way to the second floor galleries where A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints is on display until the end of the month.

Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770), Youth on a Long-Tailed Turtle as Urashima Tarō, 1767. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.110, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Curated by Asato Ikeda, assistant professor of art history at Fordham University, the show is something of a mounted textbook on Edo-era Japan. The primary focus of the show is on wakashu, adolescent males who dressed in a gender ambiguous fashion and who figured prominently in the era’s culture as everything from Kabuki actors to prostitutes. Completely legal in Edo-era Japan (1603-1868), prostitution was housed in walled off pleasure districts in Japan’s larger cities and heavily regulated. An elaborate piece of block art, The Entrance of the Great Gate to the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarters, depicts the area as a lively center of commerce where leading fashions were on display.

Wakashu are identifiable by their shaved pate or upper forehead and their long forelocks, which are shorn as they enter adulthood. They occupied a unique place on the gender spectrum as well as in the pleasure economy. Block prints include depictions of wakashu as objects of both male and female desire, employed by both to occupy varying roles of passivity and dominance.

At the start of the exhibit, it seemed unlikely that that wakashu were indeed regarded as a third gender. Perhaps, these were merely adolescent males transitioning into adulthood, this presentation an attempt to draw interest with an overlay of a contemporary dialogue. At exhibit’s end, however, my attitude changed. The show’s focus is not limited to the wakashu, and prints of men and women displaying ambiguity in dress and other outward markers of gender do support the show’s premise that gender definitions were, in fact, not exclusively binary or biologically assigned.

Isoda Koryūsai (1735–1790), Samurai Wakashu and Maid, second half of the 18th century. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 973×85.123. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©Rbiologically assigned.

In less subtle meditations on sexual pleasure, the show includes a substantial and graphic set of prints devoted to erotica that suggests a society as yet unencumbered by the Victorian values that would enter the culture as Japan’s contact with the West, Great Britain in particular, increased. While the pleasure districts occupied their own physical locations, they were in many ways at the center of culture, leading the way in the realms of fashion and entertainment. Well worth the trip to the far east side of Manhattan, this show lands us in the heart of current conversations regarding gender and identity, contextualizing our present through the celebration another culture’s past.

Third Gender runs through June 11, 2017.

Also at the Japan Society this month:

Tuesday, April 11 12-1 pm
Wednesday, April 12, 6:30-7:30 pm Free Trial Japanese Lesson
Taught by Japanese instructors at the Language Center, for absolute beginners.

Friday, April 14 6-9 pm Happy Hour
Escape East @ 333
Cocktails and an immersive video-and-sound installation by Naoko Tosa

Thursday, April 20 6-8 pm Evening Lecture: Invisible Capitalism: Japanese Capitalism & the Future of Global Capitalism
Hiroshi Tasaka, professor and author of the book Invisible Capitalism: Beyond Monetary Economy and the Birth of a New Paradigm discusses the need to transition to a new form of capitalism that assigns value to invisible capital such as knowledge, relationships, trust, empathy, and other values.

Saturday, April 22 10:30-1:30 pm Connoisseurship: Erotic Prints
Workshop on appreciating Japanese erotic prints and other Edo-period arts. Discussion moderated by Lou Forster who sits on the Japan Society Board of Directors and Dr. Sebastian Izzard who sits on the Board of Directors of the Japanese Art Society of America.


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