Gender Roles in Pre-Modern and Early Modern Japan

If we distinguish a person’s sex — either male or female, as defined by his or her genitalia — from that individual’s gender — a more subjective, potentially varied form of self-identification based upon such factors as behavior, clothing, sexual orientation, and use of language, then one can understand the existence of a group whose sex is either male or female but whose gender is neither. In pre-modern and early modern Japan, physiological males were considered men (yarō) at the age of nineteen, but between the ages of eleven and nineteen, they were labeled wakashū, and contemporary scholars have recently begun to describe wakashū as a distinct, third gender. In Japanese prints and paintings, the delicate appearance of wakashū often make them difficult to distinguish from women. Their most recognizable characteristics include their long-sleeved furisode robes and their partly shaved heads, which they occasionally covered with brightly colored caps.

Until the beginning of the 18th century, wakashū played prominent roles in various sections of Japanese society, particularly that of Kabuki actors, acolytes (chigo) in Buddhist monasteries, and assistants to samurai. Within those roles, wakashū were often viewed as objects of sexual desire by both adult men and women and were often depicted in bijinga (portraits of beauties). While relationships between adult men and wakashū (known as nanshoku, literally, “male love”) have often been described as homosexual, the recent reinterpretation of wakashū as a third gender complicates the use of terms such as “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality.” Until the 20th century, homosexual relationships between adult men or between women of any age were not publicly acknowledged, and references to such relationships are exceedingly rare in the art and literature of the Edo period.

Though tales of trysts between Buddhist priests and their acolytes date back to the Heian period (794-1185), the most comprehensive text on wakashū and nanshoku is indisputably The Great Mirror of Male Love (Nanshoku ōkagami, 1687), written by Ihara Saikaku (1642-93), best known for works such as The Life of an Amorous Man (Kōshoku ichidai otoko, 1682). Nowhere else could the enthusiasm about Saikaku’s treatise be felt as palpably as on the Kabuki stage, where wakashū actors, enlisted both as onnagata (actors portraying female characters) and as wakashū-gata (actors portraying wakashū characters) were exceedingly popular.

The discussion of wakashū and nanshoku raises challenging questions for contemporary Western audiences: How do we reconcile our own society’s intolerance of sexual exploitation with our desire to understand and appreciate Edo culture in all its intricacies? If we do recognize the prevalence of nanshoku in Edo and pre-Edo society, how do we discuss it without casting early modern Japanese culture in an Orientalist light? Further familiarization with the sexual culture of pre-modern and early modern Japan seems necessary before we can provide sufficient answers to these questions.