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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Wu

An Exhibition of the Japanese Third Gender at the ROM

Currently at the Royal Ontario Museum is an exhibition titled ‘A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Edo-Period Prints and Paintings’. Located on the third floor, the show discusses the role of the wakashu (male youths before they reach adult-hood) and their relationship with men, women and society. These roles were often ones where the elder person served as a mentor, but it can be romantic and even sexual in nature.

Though dressed similar to other youths, the wakashu can be identified by a shaved patch on top of their heads. They were often employed by members of the noble class including samurai, and because of their youthful looks, became objects of desire.

The exhibition is laid out thematically to provide a history of the wakashu, followed by their relationship with males and females. It also goes on to explain that after reaching adulthood, many wakashu­ employed similar young apprentices too.

The majority of the artworks used for this show are ukiyoe-e woodblock prints from the Sir Edmund Walker Collection. Other mediums displayed include paintings, samurai armour, books, and textiles.

There have been many shows that have been focusing on Japanese shunga (erotic art), including the 2013 British Museum’s ‘Shunga: Sex and Humour in Japanese Art’. Often the ‘Third Gender’ is incorporated as part of the larger theme. However, this ROM exhibition is the first of its kind to focus specifically on the wakashu.

The exhibition runs from May 27 to November 27, 2016 and a fully illustrated catalogue from ROM publications is available for purchase. The ukiyo-e print shown here by Hosoda Eisui (active 1790-1823) and titled Wakashu with a Shoulder-Drum is featured on the cover of the catalogue and used throughout the show's promotions.

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