Recently the Royal Ontario Museum unveiled a new exhibition, A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints that brings attention to an interesting part of Japan’s history. The exhibition offers insight to the “Wakashu” also known as young companions – a widely accepted third gender during the Edo period. Neither deemed adult man or woman, Wakashu were very much part of the country’s social structure — yet played a distinct role for both men and women erotically.
Over 70 artifacts, prints, paintings and books are on display at the exhibition that are from the ROM’s permanent collection of well over 20,000 items in the vaults. Dr. Asato Ikeda, curator of the exhibition and Assistant Professor of Art History at Fordham University in New York and the ROM’s 2014-2016 Bishop White Postdoctoral Fellow of Japanese Art and Culture hopes the exhibition will appeal to a diverse audience and encourages everyone to think differently about gender and sexuality.
Along side the exhibition several lectures and events have been scheduled and we’ve attended several already including an evening discovering the Elements of Sake, a Friday Night Live (FNLROM) party, and recently we attended an evening with internationally renowned scholar Dr. Joshua Mostow, who delved deeper into the significance of the wakashu.
Dr. Mostow spoke in the ROM’s Third Gender program series in a lecture titled “It’s Complicated: Gender Ambiguity in Early-Modern Japan.”
Dr. Mostow is a Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia where he’s been teaching since 1989. His interests lies in the relations between text and image and has published extensively on Japanese literature and art.
It was in 2014 when Dr. Mostow met with Dr. Ikeda in Japan over dinner and learned of the museum’s vast collection of Japanese prints. He expressed interest in doing something with gender and ambiguity if there was enough material to work with. When Dr. Ikeda moved to Toronto in July of the same year, she scoured through the ROM’s image data base and discussed the possibilities of an exhibition with Mastow. The exhibition proposal was approved and they began working on cataloguing the pieces in 2015.
During the evening lecture, Dr. Mostow informed us that unlike many words in the Japanese language, the noun “wakashu” has no chinese precedent. That is, the word does not come from China nor was it used there. The two characters together seen as Wakashu actually translates to young and companions.
Dr. Mostow explained that wakashu were also viewed in three different ways; general wakashu, samurai inspired ninja wakashu and then male prostitutes that were associated with Kabuki theatre.
What was interesting to learn was wakashu was not just for the higher rankings in society at that time. That there was high end and low end wakashu during the period but from what we understand, more prominent in urban settings but how did the young men become so popular? “What was happening during this period was people had to put off marriage till they got older,” says Dr. Mostow as he explained that female virgins were much desired for marriage. “If you think about it, actually Renaissance Italy too, it was okay during that time for boys to get together because then women wouldn’t lose their virginity or get accidentally pregnant. But at a certain age everyone was expected to stop all of this because society expected you to get married and start a family. It was complicated.”
In the exhibition here at the ROM, visitors can learn more about the wakashu – their place in society, desired roles as well as their style.
A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints is open now through to November 27, 2016. There are several fascinating lectures and workshops scheduled for this ongoing exhibition. Visit rom.on.ca for more details.