Even as a scholar of gender and culture, I sometimes come across a surprising new fact. This is one of those times.
In my college classes, I sometimes teach about the concept of third gender: where a culture doesn’t have a binary gender system (just masculine/feminine), but rather has another option. This is the case with the hijras of India, and certain Native American tribes have a third gender, and sometimes a fourth as well. I will occasionally show this map as part of that lesson plan, as it illustrates just how global (and yet diverse) these traditions are.
Studying and understanding global diversity is an important step in deconstructing the gender binary, as I demonstrate in my talk There’s Not Only Two. The more evidence we can add, the better.
That’s why I was fascinated to learn about a third gender tradition in Japan, dating from the Edo period, that I’d somehow never heard of before. Briefly, young men were allowed a time of gender ambiguity, during which they were called wakashu and occupied a liminal space when it was acceptable to have sex with men or women, and take up feminine arts such as flower-arranging.
This gender expression was time-bound in two important ways: it was granted to pre-adolescent men, who as I understand it were supposed to set aside such experimentation as they reached adulthood. Second, this custom came to an end with the end of the Edo period, when the West forcibly opened Japan to trade.
Professor Ikeda, interviewed in the New York Times post linked to above, noted: “Even though we have this rich tradition of gender, prints like these are not found in our textbooks.” I also wish that more gender diversity were included in teaching history and similar subjects.
So, that’s a fun gender fact for the day! I’m pleased to have more fodder for my teaching and research, as well as art appreciation, since I enjoy art history and going to art museums.