Japan Society Gallery

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 45 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned It can be hard for an untrained modern viewer to distinguish between youths and women in Japanese prints.  There are subtle but important hairstyle and fabric differences but in terms of face and body shape, they were depicted very similarly.  I wonder how many pretty women I’ve seen in woodblock prints over the years have actually been pretty dudes.

The Japan Society’s home, Japan House, was designed in 1971, by architects Junzo Yoshimura and George Shimamoto of Gruzen & Partners, and built on a site near the United Nations donated by the Society’s then-president, John D. Rockefeller the Third.   The Society’s history, however, goes back much further than that; it was founded in 1907 in the wake of an official U.S. visit by two Japanese dignitaries.  Its fortunes have waxed and waned along with Japan-U.S. relations, and today the society is a great place to take a language class, hear a talk, see a movie, or see some art.

The building feels simultaneously modern (for a midcentury architectural definition of same) and Japanese, and the first thing you notice on entering is the sound of water from a gentle fountain, replete with a stand of bamboo, a modernist, completely enclosed and skylit, take on a traditional courtyard garden.

The Society’s gallery space is on the second floor, in rooms arrayed around the courtyard.  They program all kinds of stuff there.  It’s one of the first places I saw Haruki Murakami’s work; they’ve done great shows on crafts like contemporary Japanese basketwaving and ceramics; they did a show a couple of years ago on cats in Japanese art (I bet the Brooklyn curators were jealous the Japan Society thought of it first)…  It’s a broad and varied list, always tied back to Japan.

The current show is called A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints, and looks at societal impressions of essentially tween- and teenage boys in early modern Japan.  It makes the case that they were viewed as beautiful and desirable by both men and women, and displays a variety of contemporary woodblock prints, books, and other artifacts to examine how they were depicted and described in that society.

I am emphatically not going to use this blog to discuss concepts of gender or the politics of sexuality.  But I was disturbed by this exhibition, because it robs the subject of the show of all agency:  there’s nothing in it that says whether tween and teen boys in Japan liked being or wanted to be the objects of lustful attentions from grown up men and women.  To me it feels uncomfortably like looking at TV shows and advertising from 1950s and 1960s America and concluding that women then enjoyed being secretaries and housewives and having their butts pinched by the boss.

My misgivings aside, like all Japan Society exhibitions I’ve attended it was well curated and thoughtfully designed. While none of the pieces in it is super-famous or a masterpiece, it leverages depth of collection to examine an otherwise unknown facet of life in Tokugawa Era (ca 1600-1868) Japan.

Unless you’re a fan of the Land of the Rising Sun (full disclosure, I am a fan, and have been a member of the Japan Society for well over a decade) I don’t think the Japan Society generally merits a special trip to the far eastern reaches of midtown Manhattan.  But they put on a good show, and if you happen to be by the United Nations it’s an excellent place to imbibe some culture that will almost certainly be beautiful and interesting.

For Reference:

Address 333 E 47th Street, Manhattan
Website japansociety.org
Cost  General Admission:  $12
Other Relevant Links
  • Riki, my favorite izakaya near the Japan Society, in case you want to imbibe some topically appropriate alcohol post-visit


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