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Exhibition examines gender and sexual constructs in Edo Japan for first time in the U.S.
Kaian (Megata Morimichi) (1813–1880), Dancing in a Kabuki Performance, 19th century. Color on silk. Royal Ontario Museum, 938.14.1432. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM.

NEW YORK, NY.- Two amorous figures sit seaside, intimately entwined on a cozy bamboo banquet and making music from a shared shamisen. With nearly identically coiffed tresses, flowing robes and delicate, demure features, the figures seem paradigms of female beauty in classical Japanese art. But any observer from the Edo period (1603-1868) would have immediately recognized that one figure is a maiden and the other is a wakashu — male adolescents who were objects of sexual desire for both men and women.

Suzuki Harunobu’s mid-eighteenth-century print Two Lovers Playing a Single Shamisen is one of over 70 objects in the U.S. debut of A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints, the first exhibition in North America to shed light on the complex rules that governed gender and sexual constructs in Japan’s Edo period.

Running March 10 through June 11, the exhibition presents an array of Edo-period art, including woodblock prints, paintings, luxury objects and personal adornments, to focus attention on wakashu, who appear to have constituted a distinct “third gender” in the Edo period, as well as other individuals who fell outside of the male-female gender binary in early modern Japan. A slate of related programming examines the themes of the exhibition more deeply, correlating them to contemporary issues of gender identity and sexual expression.

Originally organized and exhibited last year at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Toronto, A Third Gender has been reformulated for its New York presentation to include artworks not shown in the ROM installation as well as a modified exhibition narrative that emphasizes the diversity of gender performance in the Edo period and the significance of non-gender-binary figures in the layered artistic meanings of each work.

A Third Gender opened in Japan Society’s North Gallery with the section “Identifying Wakashu in Edo Culture,” contextualizing the Edo period, its social and sexual hierarchies, and the place of wakashu in the arts of the era. A first cluster of artwork offers a corrective to past misidentifications of wakashu as young women by highlighting the key physical and sartorial characteristics of such figures—such as a shaved spot at the top of the head, as seen in the exhibition’s signature image Wakashu with a Shoulder Drum by master printmaker Hosoda Eisui (active 1790-1823).

Later groupings draw attention to wakashu across the Edo period’s hierarchical Confucianist social class structure. A final gathering of works in the first gallery focuses on the worldly pleasures that occupy pride of place in ukiyo-e—“pictures of the floating world,” the popular pictorial genre closely associated with the Edo period. Here, images of wakashu in Yoshiwara (the licensed pleasure district of Edo, the former name of modern-day Tokyo) and its teahouse-brothels are juxtaposed with rare, early examples of shunga (erotic prints) to reveal a broadly accepting view of sexual expression in early modern Japan.

The exhibition then transitions to a second section, “Desiring Wakashu,” that focuses more directly on wakashu as both objects and agents of desire. Notably, wakashu were considered fitting partners for both men and women, a sexual ambidexterity that was unique within the Edo period’s highly regimented social structure. In Japan Society’s central Bamboo Gallery, about ten works are brought together that illustrate nanshoku, or homoerotic relations between men and wakashu.

A particularly playful example occurs in a luxuriously gilded and painted screen, depicting the fantastical world of a pleasure pavilion: in a central covered terrace, a Buddhist monk is shown toppling over with drink as a gaggle of wakashu hold him down, gorge him on wine, and tickle his feet. Segueing into Japan Society’s South Gallery, prints of wakashu and their relations with women reveal the complex intersections between gender, power, and desire in the Edo period. One example by an Utamaro-school artist shows an adult woman pouncing on a coy, desirable wakashu, while another by Utamaro himself (1753-1806) depicts a wakashu sleeping and dreaming of an acclaimed prostitute from the Yoshiwara district.

A third section of the exhibition, “Transgendering Tradition, Celebrating Youth,” focuses on mitate-e, “picture-parodies,” which adapt canonical themes from the Japanese literary and artistic tradition in playful ways. A spellbinding print of a young fisher riding a giant turtle with a richly decorative fin-like tail illustrates an ancient legend about a lowly fisherman who saves a Sea Princess: here, however, the protagonist is shown as a wakashu wearing Edo-period garb, updating the traditional subject to the present day. Later in the installation, a triptych showing wakashu and elaborately coiffed young women hawking and fording a river against a backdrop of Mount Fuji riffs on well-established Edo-period compositions of hunting parties held by feudal lords and their retinues.

In the last portion of the installation, the exhibition turns to other non-binary expressions of gender in the Edo period. A first cluster of prints is devoted to cross-dressing in the world of kabuki theater, the popular, spectacular musical theater form that emerged in the early Edo period. After the banning of women from the kabuki stage in 1629, male actors had to take on all the female roles. These cross-dressing celebrities, known as onnagata, were widely acclaimed, and at times objects of intense jealousy between audience members vying for their attention and affection.

The popularity of onnagata is testified to in numerous “actor prints” showing them in performances, which would have been collected and hung on screens or gathered in albums much like postcards or posters of celebrities today. One such “actor print” by the artist Ippitsusai Bunchō (active 1755-1790), of the famous onnagata Segawa Kikunojō II (1741-1773) playing opposite a male actor dressed as a samurai warrior, illustrates how onnagata perfected their performances of ideal feminine beauty.

The final room of the exhibition turns to women who cross-dress in Edo-period art, particularly haori-geisha—sex workers who shaved their hair to look like desirable wakashu and wore haori, a man’s overjacket, all while assuming a “tough” manner for their male clients. An anonymous mid-nineteenth-century shunpon (erotic book) includes an illustration of a haori-geisha pinning her client to the floor during a rough lovemaking session.

The exhibition-related programming for A Third Gender has been thoughtfully crafted to connect with resonances of the exhibition’s content. It includes an evening with guest curator Dr. Asato Ikeda (Fordham University), a connoisseurs’ workshop on collecting shunga (traditional Japanese erotic prints), an exclusive preview of scenes from the forthcoming documentary Queer Japan with director Graham Kolbeins, and a “Pride Ball” during the exhibition’s closing week in June to coincide with New York City’s official 2017 LGBT Pride events.

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