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Learn About Japan's "Third Gender" in a Fascinating Historical Art Exhibition

‘A Third Gender,' currently on view at the Japan Society in New York, explores the unique occurrence of an alternative gender of sorts in Edo period Japan.

Andrew Nunes

Woman and Wakashu, Attributed to Utamaro School, ca 1790s. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Whether you oppose the gender binary or don't, there is increasingly insurmountable evidence that gender is a social construct. Throughout history, different societies in divergent cultural periods have explored gender and sexuality in ways that deviate from the standardized idea of male and female as sole gender roles and heterosexuality as the only acceptable form of sexual behavior. A Third Gender, an ongoing exhibition at the Japan Society in New York, explores how Edo period Japan, an era that began just over 400 years ago, presented an alternative, "third gender" of sorts that was widely accepted and embraced by the society of the time.

The Young Man's Dream, Kitagawa Utamaro, ca. 1801-1802, Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

First displayed at The Royal Ontario Museum before making its way to New York, A Third Gender revolves around wakashu, a term that describes a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood for Japanese boys during the Edo period. At a glance, artistic depictions of wakashu are immediately androgynous. These typically adolescent boys don similar haircuts and in some cases, wear identical clothing to the women portrayed in the same woodblock prints. As Michael Chagnon, Curator of Exhibition Interpretation at Japan Society, tells me, the only guaranteed way to differentiate wakashu from women in these artworks are small patches of hair shaved off, represented by small white dots on their heads, discrete enough to be overlooked by the uninitiated viewer.

A Third Gender Installation View, 2017, Courtesy of Japan Society and the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

The exhibition is divided into a series of different sections describing and contextualizing the wakashu and the evolution of their depictions and roles in society throughout the Edo period, until their disappearance in the Meiji era. Beyond their ambiguous performance of gender, wakashu were also sexually ambidextrous, often having sex with both men and women. Depending on the gender of their partners, wakashu were expected to behave differently. With women, wakashu were encouraged to perform an active and more aggressive sexual role, while with older men, they assumed passive roles during intercourse.

Samurai Wakashu and Maid, Isoda Koryūsai, Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

The variety of woodblock prints, illustrated books, and scrolls on view in A Third Gender primarily depict heterosexual wakashu intercourse, which, contrary to the societal expectations outlined previously, often saw them act passive with their female partners, likely due to the young age and sheer inexperience of most wakashu. But the exhibition showcases a few instances of wakashu–male intercourse, namely an illustration from a book comparing sexual acts to types of seashells, where a wakashu and an adult man are seen mid-coitus while two female onlookers peer from afar.

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

As the exhibition continues, more distinct gender phenomena of Edo period Japan are explored, from Kabuki theaters' employment of men in female roles to female sex workers dressed and posing as wakashu for better business, even shaving their heads to further muddle gender roles. One of the artworks at the end of the show, dating back to the 1800s, even showcases lesbian intercourse with a hyper-realistic dildo, demonstrating a long tradition of non-heteronormative sex in Japanese culture.

Two Couples in a Brothel, Suzuki Harunobu, 1769-1770, Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

But as curator Chagnon tells me, both wakashu and these other deviations of heteronormative gender and sexuality disappeared from Japan during the Meiji period as a result of the so-called "modernization" of Japan, which, as he explains it, means Westernization and a shift to Eurocentric cultural values within Japanese society. As with other cultures around the world, white, European models of gender and sexuality flattened what existed previously in these countries, a destruction of cultural tradition so deep that most Japanese people are unaware of the historical existence of the wakashu.

Dancing in a Kabuki Performance, Kaian (Megata Morimichi), Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Although the exploration of the wakashu phenomenon and these other investigations into historical Japanese gender and sexuality may seem to function as commentary on the LGBTQ+ experience of people today, Chagnon argues that this is not exactly the case: "One thing the show does not want to do and doesn't claim to do is create a direct one to one parallel to contemporary LGTBQ+ experience and lives," the curator explains. "But what I think the show does well is create a historical point of reference to think about these issues. It's meant as sort of a point of departure for thinking about the ways we construct gender and sexuality in our own contemporary society."

Wakashu with a Shoulder-Drum, Hosoda Eisui, late 18th-early 19th century, Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

A Third Gender will be on view at the Japan Society in New York until June 11th. For information on the original iteration of the exhibition curated by Asato Ikeda at the The Royal Ontario Museum, click here.

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