Review: Japan Society’s Escape East Meet Up and “A Third Gender” art exhibit

Cover image: The Japan Society © Sally Beane for WhereNYC

“I really want sake,” I overheard one classmate whine to another. This was in the early 2010s, in my final years of high school. Gossip Girl was all the rage, and such shows had made sake an “it” drink, along the lines of champagne. When I heard an event at the Japan Society would be serving it, I looked forward to finally trying it.

Once in the building, I didn’t know where to go. I walked into a two story building, all dedicated to one event. I did, however, manage to find the sake, twice. It was, the man pouring the drinks kindly explained, a rice wine. Sipping it, I noticed that unlike Korean rice wine, sake was clean, odorless, surprisingly spirit-like for a wine.

There were two areas serving drinks, and an art gallery. The exhibition was dedicated to the Third Gender, an exhibit on depictions of gender during Edo period Japan. The tour guide very articulately guided us through my second gander through the gallery. She explained that wakashu, who were adolescent males, were considered acceptable sexual partners for both men and women.” The first time around, I hadn’t noticed that there was an entire section designated to erotic art, which led to what I can only describe as the comedic highlight of the exhibit. There was one particular painting, with a wakashu taking the dominant sexual role, where the man in the more submissive role looks genuinely surprised at what he has agreed to, a rather relatable (and absurdly funny, at that moment) human moment of emotion.

Unidentified Artist, Pages from an unidentified Utagawa-School Erotic Book, ca. 1850s. Color woodblock print. Private Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

The guide ended the tour on a rather moving note, noting how future Western influence set back a kind of acceptance of what can only anachronistically be described as gender fluidity. It was a gentle nudge back to our current location, our current time. We had escaped into Japan, as the event title suggested, and we had been brought back.

Don’t miss the next installment of the Japan Society’s Escape East @333 on April 21st.

Hae Jin Kim