Nishikawa Sukenobu 西川祐信 (1671-1750)
Erotic Book: Taiheiki (Makurabon taiheiki 枕本太平記)

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), c. 1716-1726
Woodblock-printed book; ink on paper
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003

From parodies of literary works, in which female courtesans assume the roles of Prince Genji and other famous male characters, to images of the tattooed ruffian Benten Kozō Kikunosuke (a popular Kabuki hero) dressed in a woman’s kimono, the subjects of Japanese woodblock prints were often humorously depicted disguising their true genders. In real life as well, however, cross-dressing was an integral aspect of the sexual culture of the Edo period (1615-1868).

Beginning in the late Heian period (794-1185), female dancers known as shirabyōshi wore men’s attire, including tate-eboshi hats, red hakama skirts, and samurai swords. Though geisha would not be recognized as a distinct profession in Japan until the late 18th century, by the 1680s, their predecessors — teenage female dancers known as odoriko — developed popularity among the upper class.

Like geisha, odoriko originally aspired to be non-sexual entertainers, but began to engage in prostitution by the early 18th century. By dressing as wakashū, some odoriko were able to capitalize on both men and women’s view of wakashū as objects of sexual desire. On the left page of this book, an adult male Kabuki actor carouses with an odoriko (distinguishable from a wakashū only by her genitalia) during a semi-private picnic, while on the right page, a curious wakashū (or possibly another odoriko) spies on the couple through a curtain.

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