Japan Society Gallery announces the U.S. premiere of A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints, the first exhibition in North America devoted to the variety of gender and sexual expression in traditional Japanese society by focusing on wakashu, attractive male youths who, the exhibitions reveals, constituted a distinct gender category during the Edo period (1603-1868). On view from March 10 to June 11, 2017, this groundbreaking exhibition features over 65 woodblock prints, as well as paintings, deluxe lacquerwork objects, and personal ornaments from the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Toronto, one of the most expansive collections of Japanese art in North America. The exhibition sheds light on the complex rules which governed sexual and societal constructs, offering a critical historical context for gender performance and sexual expression—topics that continue to resonate within today’s political, public, and artistic discourse.
“We could not be more excited to bring this imminently relevant exhibition to New York City,” says Yukie Kamiya, Gallery Director at Japan Society. “With our long history of presenting traditional and contemporary Japanese art, we look forward to exploring Japan’s Early Modern era, which is often characterized as a moment of isolation, from an unexpected vantage point–namely, how the richness of lived experience in the Edo period can serve as a touchstone for issues that resonate within contemporary society.”
In cultures around the globe, gender has historically been defined according to a binary framework based on biological sex. However, the exhibition suggests that in Edo-period Japan, a person’s gender was defined according to several additional factors, including age and appearance. Fundamental to this structure were wakashu, who, being neither “men” nor “women”, constituted a “third gender” occupying their own place within the social hierarchy. The term wakashu could refer generally to “beautiful youths” who had yet to undergo the coming-of-age ceremony that initiated them into the social role of adult manhood, but who were nonetheless sexually mature. While wakashu were the objects of desire for both men and women, the term also refers specifically to youths who were the companions of adult men in male-male erotic relationships, known as nanshoku.
Depictions of wakashu have often been misidentified as female figures, but in fact can be distinguished by certain charactersitics such as hairstyle. Their prevalence as artistic subjects suggest their importance within the cultural fabric of Edo Japan, a fact that has gone largely unrecognized. Their historic artistic portrayals are most notably recognized in the century work of Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770), Utagawa Utamaro I (1753-1806), Bunro (1800-1810) and Hosoda Eisui (1790-1823).
Beyond the focus on wakashu, A Third Gender also explores the complexity of gender and sexual expression in Edo Japan more broadly. Subsections within the exhibition focus onnagata, or adult male actors who specialized in female roles in kabuki theater, and cross-dressing women like haori-geisha—geisha who wore men’s clothes and assumed a tough manner for their clients. Examples of shunga, or erotic prints, will help provide additional context for the social and sexual landscape of the Edo period.
A Third Gender was organized by the Royal Ontario Museum, where it was on view from May 7, 2016, through November 27, 2016. More than half of the prints come from the collection of Sir Edmund Walker, an early benefactor of the museum who bequested a foundational collection of Japanese art including over 1,000 ukiyo-e prints. Several prints and three-dimensional works not shown in ROM’s original presentation, but also from Walker’s collection, will be presented in the Japan Society exhibition. The exhibition is accompanied by a 160-page catalogue published by ROM, distributed by Brill, and co-authored by Asato Ikeda (Fordham University, and curator of the Toronto presentation) and Joshua Mostow (University of British Columbia). It is a key scholarly reference work, beautifully illustrated with the exhibited artworks as well as additional material.