An exhibition touring North America right now features centuries old erotic Japanese prints of the wakashu – or Japan’s Third Gender.
It was during Japan’s Edo period, which stretched from the early 1600s to about 1868, that this cultural subgroup was generally recognized. They were typically androgynous, adolescent boys who had not yet entered into adulthood and were culturally permitted to present as either gender, and be viewed as objects of desire for both men and women. That is, until they removed their forelocks in a coming-of-age ceremony known as “genpuku.”
The works depict a radical moment in Japanese history that often goes unacknowledged even today. As Asato Ikeda, a guest curator of the exhibition, told The New York Times: “Even though we have this rich tradition of gender, prints like these are not found in our textbooks. We don’t do these kinds of exhibitions in Japan.”
The Edo period was characterized by peace, economic growth, isolation from the West and a rigid social order. Within this era of tranquility and prosperity blossomed a renewed interest in art, entertainment and sex, all of which converged in cultural practices like Kabuki theater, red light–style pleasure districts and erotic prints known as “shunga.”
Given the strict hierarchies that divided class and age in real life, these realms opened up space for fantasies to play out and experimentation to flourish. The wild imaginings and the power plays they alluded to are visualized in the vivid woodblock prints that circulated for cheap throughout the two Edo centuries. Within them, older men and women make love to wakashu, pictured as flirtatious and desirable.
Upon first glance, wakashu appear like women, donning elaborate hairstyles and long-sleeved kimono robes, known as “furisodes.” Yet a shaved triangular patch toward the top of the head is the defining mark that identifies the alluring youth as wakashu. A sword peeking out of a samurai sash can also disclose their biological sex, as can their genitals, which occasionally appear in some of the more erotic prints.
The images also depict cross-dressing in various forms ― women sex workers known as “haori-geisha” who dressed as wakashu to appeal to male clients aroused by masculinity, enacting a sort of drag within drag. Men also performed female roles on the Kabuki stage, where women were banned, as fluctuating actors known as “onnagata.”
The tradition of the wakashu died out around 1860, when Japan was infiltrated both militarily and culturally by the West and, as a result, broke with their more experimental traditions. Today, same-sex marriage is still not legal in Japan, although some cities do grant partnerships between LGBTQ people. Open attitudes regarding gender identity and sexual experimentation, however, are most evident in the stunning imagery crafted centuries ago, when gender was not conceived of as either binary or biological, but a fluctuating range of identities and performances, of pleasure and play.
“A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints” is currently on view through June 11 at New York’s Japan Society.