In light of the many controversies now erupting in the US over gender identification - witness the furor over the infamous North Carolina "bathroom bill" - the Japan Society's current exhibit, A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints, is particularly timely. Through the display of a large number of artworks, the majority of them ukiyo-e woodblock prints dating from the eighteenth century, the exhibit attempts to trace the manner in which gender was viewed in Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate during what is now known as the Edo period.
At the center of the exhibit is the concept of the wakashū, a historical term used to describe adolescent boys. These youths were distinguished by a specific hairstyle in which the crown of the head was shaven and long forelocks on either side left in place. No longer children and not yet men, they enjoyed a somewhat amorphous role in Japanese society. As the Wikipedia article indicates:
"The concept of wakashū contained several partially overlapping elements: an age category between childhood and adulthood; the social role of a pre-adult or adolescent boy, usually conceived of as a subordinate (student, apprentice or protégé); and the idea of the 'beautiful youth', a suitable target for homosexual desire and the subject of wakashūdo, 'the way of youths'."
While the current exhibit explores all these meanings, emphasis is placed more on the term's erotic connotations. In this regard, it should be noted that wakashū were sexually involved with both men and women.
The show is a large one and takes up several galleries. (Two of these are devoted to shunga, a form of ukiyo-e that is explicitly sexual, and even pornographic, in content. These galleries are marked off with a warning that all children must be accompanied by adults.) The exhibit itself is divided into four distinct parts. The first deals with the historical context in which the artworks were created and provides means of identifying the wakashū shown within them; the second with the manner in which wakashū were presented as objects of desire; the third with the depiction of wakashū in mitate-e, a subgenre of ukiyo-e in which historical events and classical artworks were parodied; and the fourth with those institutions, such as prostitution and kabuki theater, in which gender roles did not follow traditionally accepted patterns.
Beyond the sociological implications of the artwork shown, the prints on display are masterpieces of Japanese art and well worth viewing for themselves. Many of the greatest ukiyo-e artists are represented here. These include Kuniyoshi and Kobayashi, who later became famous for his prints illustrating the modernization of Japan under the Meiji, but but above all Utamaro, widely admired for his sensitive portrayals of female subjects.
What is most striking in the exhibit is the lack of moral censure against those participating in suggestive and erotic behavior. The Japanese were never corrupted by the moral hypocrisy that in America forms the legacy of its Puritan forefathers. Though the Tokugawa shogunate was a thoroughly authoritarian regime, to a large extent it tolerated moral ambiguity in the personal lives of its subjects. The show provides a glimpse into an alternative reality where gender roles were once a good deal more fluid than they are today, at least here in the US.
The exhibit, organized by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, continues through June 11, 2017.