NEW YORK • A figure in a translucent kimono coyly holds a fan. Another arranges an iris in a vase. Are they men or women?
As a mind-bending exhibition that opened last Friday at the Japan Society illustrates, they are what scholars call a third gender - adolescent males seen as the height of beauty in early modern Japan who were sexually available to both men and women. Known as wakashu, they are one of several examples in the show that reveal how elastic the ideas of gender were before Japan adopted Western technology and more rigid Western notions of gender in the late 1800s.
The show, A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths In Japanese Prints, arrives at a time of ferment about gender roles in the United States and abroad. The notion of "gender fluidity" is roiling traditional definitions.
"This brings us back to history to think about the present and the future," said Fordham University assistant professor of art history Asato Ikeda, the guest curator of the exhibition, which covers the Edo period from 1603 to 1868.
She said that like other societies in the past and present - the hijra in India and the "two-spirit people" in some American indigenous cultures - the diversity in gender definitions and sexual practices in Edo Japan challenges modern notions that male and female are clear either-or identities.
The art on display shows how many permutations were acceptable in Edo society: men or women in liaisons with the adolescent wakashu; female geisha dressing like wakashu; and even a male Kabuki actor impersonating a woman who pretends at one point to be a man.
That suggests, Prof Ikeda said, that some blurring of gender identity was deliberate, playful and often arousing, since the prints were relatively inexpensive and widely circulated, some as erotica.
The wakashu are a case in point. The term describes the time a male reaches puberty and his head is partly shaved, with a triangleshaped cut above the forelocks that is a telltale way to identify wakashu. During this stage of life, before adulthood, it was socially permissible to have sex with men or women.
The exhibition raises questions of pederasty, given that wakashu were sexually available younger than would now be considered the age of consent. The curators consulted social workers and lawyers during the original exhibit, held in Toronto, to make sure the work was not considered child pornography.
Mr Michael Chagnon, curator of exhibit interpretation at the Japan Society, said sexual liaisons took place at an earlier age partly because people died younger, often by their late 30s.
In an uncanny echo of the past, some Japanese men today are again blurring lines, dressing androgynously, using make-up or wearing clothes typically seen as feminine.
"Even though we have this rich tradition of gender, prints like these are not found in our textbooks," said Prof Ikeda, who grew up in Japan. "We don't do these kinds of exhibitions in Japan."