Ishikawa Toyonobu 石川豊信 (1711-1785)
Wakashū with a Flower Cart

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), mid 1750s
Woodblock print; ink on paper with hand-coloring
Gift of James A. Michener, 1991

In pre-modern and early modern Japanese society, sexual relations between adult men were not publicly acknowledged. Consequently, a wakashū’s “coming-of-age” ceremony at age nineteen, in which his forelocks would be shaven and he would be pronounced an adult, mandated that he immediately terminate any sexual relations with adult men, regardless of how strong and intimate those relations may have been. The brief time in which a male was considered a wakashū epitomizes the concept of mono no aware — awareness of the ephemeral nature of the material world. A young man is only available as a wakashū lover for at most six years, and it is that brevity that makes him so attractive.

In the words of Yoshida Kenkō (1283?-1350?), author of Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa):

If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.

Early usages of botanical metaphors to describe wakashū include this print by Ishikawa Toyonobu. Above the image of an anonymous wakashū carrying a flower cart, Toyonobu laments, “The days of wakashū are as numbered as the cherry blossom.”

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