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The problem of the beautiful youth

 A woodblock print by Ishikawa Toyonobu, circa 1740,  showing two actors portraying a wakashū (left) and an adult man.

A woodblock print by Ishikawa Toyonobu, circa 1740,  showing two actors portraying a wakashū (left) and an adult man.

A new exhibit at the Japan Society considers a moment in Edo culture (17th through early-19th century Japan) when the wakashū, or beautiful youth, held sway as companions for men and even women.

The New York Times has written about this from the viewpoint of our current transgender controversies, which makes sense since the show, through June 11, is titled “A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints.” But I’m more interested in the parallels to ancient Greece and what such practices say about morality seen through the scrim of history.

The Japanese show has a parallel with the ancient Greek relationship between the erômenos (beautiful youth) and the erastês (older man). As with the wakashū, the role of the  erômenos suggested a male rite of passage and education in becoming a man. But that rite and education had a definite sexual component. So what are we in the 21st century to make of this? It’s interesting that the curators consulted lawyers and social workers in organizing the show on the wakashū to ensure it did not border on child pornography.

 A wakashū (seated) and his female companion in autumn.   Suzuki Harunobu ,  polychrome woodblock print , circa 1770

A wakashū (seated) and his female companion in autumn.  Suzuki Harunobupolychrome woodblock print, circa 1770

That and child molestation have become the third rail of scandal and ostracism in our society, in which pretty much anything else goes. Witness the trouble agent provocateur Milo Yiannopoulis got into for saying 13-year-old boys might benefit from sex with adult men and women and that child sex abuse wasn’t that big of a deal. One day he was the conservative darling with a big fat Simon & Schuster book contract. The next day he had – and was – bupkis.

Yet had he lived in ancient Greece or 18th century Japan, no one would’ve batted an eye. That doesn’t make what he said right. On the contrary, it was terribly reckless. But it does demonstrate that morality has been relative throughout history.

That still leaves us with the question: What are we to make of earlier times that do not share our mores? Here I find “Hamilton’s America,” a behind-the-scenes look at the Broadway phenomenon that’s been airing on PBS’ “Great Performances,” to be illuminating. The multiracial cast struggled in approaching their portrayals of the Founding Fathers, many of whom were Southern slaveholders. But cast members came to the realization that they needed to understand these men in full – as the sum of their flaws and accomplishments – accomplishments that would later benefit everyone.

  Ganymede, beloved of Zeus and cupbearer to the gods, on an Attic red-figure bell-krater, circa 500-490 B.C.

Ganymede, beloved of Zeus and cupbearer to the gods, on an Attic red-figure bell-krater, circa 500-490 B.C.

The Greeks and the Japanese have given us works of surpassing beauty. But they were among those cultures that institutionalized what we would view as child sex abuse and statutory rape. And yet, we cannot read history backward. To do so, would be to do a disservice to us readers and our subjects.

As historian Robin Osborne wrote in “Greek History,” “…the glory that was Greece was part of a world in which many of our own core values find themselves challenged rather than reinforced."