- Japanese: 若衆 (wakashu or wakashuu)
Wakashû refers generally to a young man, prior to the age of genpuku, who therefore has not had his forelocks cut/shaved off yet. The term can also refer more specifically to the younger partner in a samurai pederastic relationship (shûdô), or to young male actors in kabuki.
Coming of age in early modern Japan involved maintenance of particular hairstyles, in stages depending on one's age. In the first stage of progression from child to wakashû ("youth"), at age eleven or twelve, a section just in the middle of the top of the boy's head was shaved. Though hair was left on all sides, it was the forelocks, or bangs, in front, the maegami (lit. "front hair") which were seen as particularly marking one's identity as wakashû. At age fourteen or fifteen, the shaved crown was still maintained, and one's hair was cut into straighter right-angles; this was known as kado o ireru ("putting in the corners") and as sumi-maegami ("cornered front-hair"). Finally, at age eighteen or nineteen, one's forelocks were shaved off, along with the crown, resulting in the shaved pate (sakayaki) that was the mark of a full adult.
This shaved crown, along with the forelocks, can often be easily seen in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and other works; often, the forelocks were grown out, and tied back. As a mark of one's youth, the forelocks came to be somewhat eroticized. Kabuki actors playing female roles (onnagata) covered over their shaved crowns or shaved pates with a purple cloth, known simply as murasaki bôshi ("purple hat"), in order to hide this mark of their maleness. These purple cloths quickly became eroticized by the fans as well.
Sources such as Ihara Saikaku's Nanshoku Ôkagami ("A Great Mirror of Male Love", 1687) indicate that "in the past" (when is not precisely clear), wakashu were typically "ostentatiously violent, and thus manly," and that at that time, a young man who was too weak, gentle, or feminine in his manner would find it difficult to find an older samurai with whom to engage in shûdô. This emphasis on martial manliness is somewhat understandable, given the martial nature of life in the Sengoku period, and the idea that wakashû were expected to grow up to become fathers, warriors, and nenja themselves.
Saikaku indicates, however, that by his own time (the Genroku period, 1688-1704), wakashû came to be valued more for their youth, beauty, and artistic abilities (e.g. in dance, music, and poetry), and less for their physical strength or martial prowess, in conjunction with the rise of the feminization of young actors on the kabuki stage.
Wakashû kabuki typically refers to kabuki performed chiefly or exclusively by young men in the period from 1629, when women were banned from appearing onstage, until 1652, when young men (wakashû) were obliged to shave their heads, in order to appear as adult men; in both cases, the chief reason behind the shogunate's bans was because the women and the young men were working as prostitutes, and were using the performances to advertise their bodies.
Despite the 1652 bans, young men eventually returned to the stage. While wakashû continued to refer somewhat generally to actors (and, indeed, any men) who had not yet come of age, the term also came to refer more specifically to a type of apprentice actors known as kagema, who also worked as male prostitutes.
- Maki Morinaga, "The Gender of Onnagata as the Imitating Imitated," positions 10:2 (2002), 245-284.
- Joshua Mostow, "Wakashu as a Third Gender and Gender Ambiguity through the Edo Period," in Mostow and Asato Ikeda (eds.), A Third Gender, Royal Ontario Museum (2016), 19.
- Morinaga, 252.
- The older samurai in a pederastic, shûdô, relationship.
- Morinaga, 252-253.
- Mostow, 26.
- These apprentices largely remained in the background of kabuki scenes, or even off-stage entirely, "in the shadows" (kage no ma), in order to watch and learn. Mostow, 19.