A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints at Japan Society Gallery, March 10 – June 11, 2017

“In many societies, gender has been defined as a binary correlating to the male and female biological sexes. However, this has not been the case in all times and places. In Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868), it appears that other factors, such as age and appearance, shaped how society constructed gender.

Fundamental to this structure were wakashu—male adolescents, considered neither men nor women, who appear to have formed a distinct “third gender” category in early modern Japanese society. Wakashu were prevalent subjects of Edo-period art, suggesting their importance within the cultural fabric of the era.

A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints is the first exhibition in North America to illuminate the construction of gender in Edo-period Japan by focusing on depictions of wakashu. The exhibition opens by situating wakashu within the artistic and social landscapes of the era. The second section considers wakashu as both objects and agents of erotic desire. Attention is then shifted to “the wakashu” as a complex, coded motif in art and literature, before segueing to related forms of gender performance, particularly among the demimondes of Kabuki actors and sex workers.

In offering a historical context for understanding variant modes of gender and sexuality, A Third Gender reveals how aspects of Edo culture, though seemingly distant, can serve as  critical touchstones for artistic, social, and political discourses of today.” — Introductory Wall Text

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

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

Hosoda Eisui (active 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

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806), From the Series Twelve Forms of Women’s Handiwork, late 1790s. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.407, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Bunrō (active 1801–1804), Wakashu and Young Woman with Hawks, ca. 1803. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 2013.85.3. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

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

Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770), Geese Descending on the Koto Bridges from Eight Fashionable Parlour Views, 1768–1770. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.114, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770), Two Lovers Playing a Single Shamisen, 1766-1769. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.120, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Isoda Koryūsai (1735–1790), Samurai Wakashu and Maid, 18th century. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 973×85.123. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806), The Young Man’s Dream from the series Profitable Visions in Daydreams of Glory, ca. 1801–1802. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.546, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806), Party in Front of Mount Fuji, ca. 1790. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.242, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

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

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

Ippitsusai Bunchō (active around 1755–1790), Segawa Kikunojō II Playing a Flute and Ichikawa Komazō II Holding a Lantern, 1770. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.240, Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Unidentified Artist, Portrait of Tomoe Gozen (?), ca. 1830–1835. Color woodblock print. Royal Ontario Museum, 2009.124.76, James King Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

Unidentified Artist, Pages from an unidentified Utagawa-School Erotic Book, ca. 1850s. Two half-sheets glued together, from a printed book with color illustrations. Private Collection. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM

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

A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints was curated by Dr. Asato Ikeda. At the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), as the first Bishop White Postdoctoral Fellow of Japanese Art, she organized the exhibition.

Originally organized and exhibited last year at ROM in 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.

Images courtesy Japan Society.