Japan Society’s “A Third Gender” Exhibition Highlights the Bishounen of Centuries Past

Last week, I finally had a chance to visit the Japan Society to experience their latest exhibition, A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Japan Society is an organization based in New York City that is “committed to deepening mutual understanding between the United States and Japan”, a goal which the organization pursues by hosting art galleries, film viewings, talks and other events covering both traditional and modern Japanese culture.

May 19th marked the organization’s 110th Anniversary, and I thought it was as good a time as any to pay them a visit.

A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints, which is on view until June 11, offers a rare look into gender constructs and sexuality in early modern Japan before the arrival of the ‘black ships’, which ushered in a wave of modernity based upon western values.

The exhibition, which was organized by the Royal Ontario Museum of Toronto, features over 65 woodblock prints, including paintings, accessories and luxury objects.

A Third Gender is notable in that it is the first exhibition in North America devoted to the portrayal of wakashu, male adolescents whom, according to scholars, existed in a space where they were “considered neither men nor women, but were desirable to both”.


The exhibition blew me away with its sheer informativeness and impeccable attention to detail. Each segment of the exhibition builds upon each previously introduced concept to create a comprehensible and satisfying overview of gender performance and sexual expression during the Edo Period. 

Suzuki Harunobu – A Young Samurai Viewing Cherry Blossoms, 1767-1769

One surprise was that while I entered the exhibition expecting to see the juxtaposition between modern and Edo Period Japan, I actually found myself drawing parallels between the Edo Period allure to beautiful youth and modern portrayals of gender and sexuality in Japan.

For instance, you can argue that the teenaged male idols of Johnny’s and Associates are an extension of this earlier fascination in good looking young men. Just replace a wakashu’s signature shaved updo with some coiffed hair and his drum with a microphone.

Gender-bending also continues to be at the heart of revue shows, such as those of the famous Takarazuka Revue. And Japan’s pop culture captivation with youth, beauty, and love is evident in manga, anime and film, music – you name it.

Isoda Koryuusai – Night Rain on Harushima of the Matsubayashi, 1735-1790

I found it fascinating that in spite of Japan’s ‘modernization’ as a reaction to western pressure, traditional Japanese culture has endured, evolved, and continues to manifest itself in new forms.

A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints is on view through June 11.

There are also exhibition-related programs taking place, including a panel discussion on June 3  titled Queer Representations: Exhibiting Sexuality and Gender and a party on June 9 titled Edo Extravaganza. Click the links for more details.

※Top Image: Suzuki Harunobu – Youth on a Long-Tailed Turtle as Urashima Tarou, 1767

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