(Art) History Beyond The Binaries: “A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths In Japanese Prints” at Japan Society

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806), Party in Front of Mount Fuji, ca. 1790. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.424, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Is art history–or even just history itself–incompatible with our Western-imposed binary systems and heteronormative thought? Without a doubt, yes, as shown in a groundbreaking and thrilling current exhibition A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints at the Japan Society.

A Third Gender effectively throws a wrench in historical assumptions of the universality and prevalence of the male/female binary and sexual acts as markers of identity. And it couldn’t come a moment too soon. With the increased visibility of trans and gender nonconforming people, many like to think this is somehow a new thing. But, by focusing on the wakashu in the visual culture of Japan’s Edo period, which ran from 1603-1868, A Third Gender proves that transgressing gender binaries occurs throughout history.

Who are wakashu, you ask? Well, the term translates to male youths. However, the exhibition, curated by Asato Ikeda with Michael Chagnon, argues that wakashu actually stood apart from the gender binary as a third ambiguous gender. Adolescent boys before their coming-of-age ceremony (a date that would vary depending on the boy’s economic means so it’s difficult to say exactly how old the wakashu actually were), wakashu were seen as erotic objects, sexually available to both men and women. Kinky!

Originating at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, the exhibition marks the first time a North American institution focused on this figure in Japanese art from the Edo period. It is also one of the first studies on the wakashu, who were frequently misgendered as women in woodblock prints.

Hosoda Eisui (fl. 1790–1823), Wakashu with a Shoulder-Drum, late 18th-early 19th century. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.701, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

A close examination of the differences between young women and wakashu in the woodblock prints in A Third Gender reveals just why. Both the woman and wakashu wear elaborate (and fabulous) outfits, as well as well-coiffed hair. The primary distinction is the wakashu’s shaved notch in their hair as seen in Hosada Eisui’s Wakashu with a Shoulder-Drum. Once you notice the little triangle in their pate, it’s easier to point out the wakashu throughout the show.

However, it is not failsafe. Beyond exploring the place of the wakashu in Edo society, A Third Gender also examines the frequent gender play that occurred during this period, which includes women dressed like wakashu, cross-dressing in kabuki theater after women were banned in 1629 even though it was started by a woman (figures…) and the haori geisha, female sex workers that dressed and acted like men.

Overall, the exhibition is a celebration beyond the binaries that requires viewers, as well as scholars, to throw off their assumptions about both gender and sexual identity. It’s illuminating and requires historians to reevaluate their Western traditions of analysis. It also shows some uncomfortable truths about just how unique our Western reliance on binaries, as well as age of consent laws, really are.

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

Edo’s Erotic World

In one of the first rooms in the exhibition, the curators display images of the licensed pleasure district of Edo, Yoshiwara. With sanctioned brothels, which included both female and wakashu prostitutes, Edo Japan emerges as a period in which sexual proclivities ran rampant. This is further emphasized with a room full of shunga, pornographic woodblock prints that were alternately used as both play and pleasure, showcasing both heterosexual, same-sex and threesome couplings.

But, the individuals with perhaps the most interesting and fluid place within this erotic cornucopia is the wakashu. In her introduction to the A Third Gender catalogue, curator Asato Ikeda describes the wakashu as “neither ‘man’ nor ‘woman’ and who at times had romantic or sexual relationships with both men and women” (11). These queer partnerships are on view in the many prints in the exhibition.

Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770), A Young Samurai Viewing Cherry Blossoms, 1767–1769. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.109, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

For the male-wakashu couplings, the older man took on the active role as the wakashu was passive. But, after their coming-of-age ceremony, the former-wakashu could, then, take the active role in a sexual coupling with a wakashu. Now, all men went through a wakashu stage as adolescents, regardless of class status. As Ikeda describes in the catalogue, “Males who had sex with other males did not constitute a sexual minority. Bisexuality was common, socially accepted and at times even considered a luxury reserved for those who could afford to buy both women (either young or adult) and young men at brothers in the pleasure quarters” (12).

Attributed to Utamaro School, Woman and Wakashu, ca. 1790s. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.550, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

In contrast, the wakashu were sexually available to both older and younger women. With very few documents addressing women’s sexuality (or even, potential same-sex relationships with women as seen in one of the final prints in the show), the relationships between wakashu and women were still primarily narrated in literature and depicted in prints by men. Nevertheless, in works like Woman and Wakashu, the older women appears to be taking the dominant role in the erotic coupling as she lunges lustfully at some poor, unsuspecting wakashu. That cougar is hungry!

However, in the wakashu/young woman relationship, the power dynamic seemed more equal as seen in prints like Samurai Wakashu and Maid. Coming from a similar age-group, the power dynamic would be less rigid and culturally imposed. This rigidity of sexual play is essential to understanding Edo-era Japan’s gender and sexual identities. While, on one hand, sex and gender is comparatively fluid, their social, class and age structure was highly regimented, which extended to sexual performance.

But…but…but…is it pederasty? (No)

Ok, I know what you’re thinking dearest Filthy Dreams readers. I see you counting the age on your fingers and realizing that these adolescent beautiful youths might be a tad too young for these older men. Someone call To Catch A Predator!

Bunrō (active 1780–1800), Wakashu and Young Woman with Falcons, around 1803. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 2013.85.3. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Now, before you try to Milo me or the poor curators, remember this was a completely different era with completely different social structure than the pederasty you’re thinking. This wasn’t an individualistic democratic society where your preferred sexual partners meant something about your identity. Instead, Edo Japan was a Confucian society, which upheld collectivism and divisions between social statuses. Also, it’s hard to argue that 13 is too young when people were dying at 30.

Even still, Ikeda recognizes the potential trouble wakashu might bring for North American viewers. As she observes in her catalogue introduction, “Edo-period gender relations involving wakashu, furthermore, challenge the generally held beliefs and morality of people in contemporary North America: That is, that youth should not be sexualized” (12).

While, yes, according to today’s stringent consent laws, these were pedo-relationships, our obsession with age of consent is, in fact, an anomaly in history. Only in the past couple centuries have we been obsessed with placing legal restrictions on age of sexuality. However, this isn’t the only Western-imposed morality brought to Japan’s (art) history.

Gender/Sexual Binaries As Colonialism

Unidentified Artist, Merry-Making in the Mansion (Teinai yūraku zu),attributed to Kan’ei era (1624–1644). Gold and pigment on paper. Royal Ontario Museum,989.24.46. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Despite all the fun transgressions on view throughout the exhibition, including a wakashu romp with a Buddhist monk, one of my favorite assertions made by A Third Gender is that the widely held binaries between gender and sexual identity were, in fact, brought by Western colonizers. The West basically imposed our stringently Puritanical views on non-Western cultures.

This is laid out quite clearly in the final label in the show, which describes the “arrival of American ships in 1853.” As the label states, “The Meiji government began a program of rapid “modernization,” which entailed the adoption of many Western customs and norms. In this process, certain Victorian-era notions of gender and sexuality–that people are either men or women, and that a man should be coupled with a woman and vice versa-were introduced and emulated, effectively ending the tradition of wakashu. This normalization of both a binary gender structure and a correlated heteronormative framework for erotic-romantic relationships was adopted and reinforced across the globe through colonialism, leading to the erasure of gender and sexual diversity in many cultures.”

Basically, the man/woman, male/female, hetero/homosexuality binaries that the West has taken as essential truth was nothing but a colonizing force in non-Western cultures. You could say gender and sexual binaries are actually part of repressive colonization (and you could even say this in America with the two-spirit tradition of Native American and other First Nation cultures). But, what does this mean for art history and history itself?

Forgetting binaries

Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770), Youth on a Long-Tailed Turtle as Urashima, Tarō, 1767. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.110, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Before the press walkthrough this week, Ikeda explained that the figure of the wakashu “does not fit within gender binarism and heteronormativity.” She echoes this statement in her catalogue introduction, explaining, “The Edo gender and sexuality system was much more complex than simple identification can acknowledge” (12).

This, on some level, explains why it took so damned long to look into the wakashu in Japan’s visual culture. It seems to shake historians and art critics to their very core by essentially revealing the constructed interworkings and untruths of binaries.

Just look at the New York Times’ ham-fisted coverage of the show in the unfortunately titled “When Japan Had A Third Gender.” Beyond the misguided title, which, perhaps inadvertently, assumes there’s no third gender now in Japan, the author Susan Chira asks incredulously in the first paragraph: “Are they men or women?” (Neither). She goes on to put gender fluidity in scare quotes and refers to the show as “mind-bending.” And trust me, while exhilarating for those, like me, who enjoys seeing the systematic construction of gender and sexuality questioned by history itself. The show doesn’t exactly twist your mind up if you have the wherewithal to transcend these socially-imposed gender and sexual identities.

And perhaps this is what both historians and art historians need to do in order to faithfully reconstruct and interpret history. If anything, A Third Gender proves that binary systems are inherently incompatible with historical thought(explaining the centuries of ignorance about the wakashu), making it impossible to analyze history without finding a way to think beyond binaries.

Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770), Two Couples in a Brothel, 1769–1770. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.121, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

A word of warning: a big mistake would be to co-opt the wakashu as some forefather to trans or queer identities in the contemporary culture. Even though we love nothing more than to reappropriate periods of pre-modern LGBTQ history (does queer Abe ring a bell?), it is almost another form of colonization to place our contemporary Western identities onto early non-Western forms of sexual and gender. Instead, the best it can do is force other curators, art historians and historians to overcome their culturally driven biases to better understand other fluid forms of gender/sexual identity in other cultures.

In many ways, A Third Gender could be used as a template to explore further non-binary genders and sexual relationships in other cultures from ancient Greece to the Ottoman Empire to Native American cultures. And ultimately, it also forces viewers to confront the constructed nature of their own identities as a product of our particular time and place. By proving that sexual identity and gender are not, in fact, a biological fact, but cultural and performative, it allows for a more fluid understanding of sexuality and gender across time–an opening of possibilities in how we understand the past, present and future.

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