In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Magnus Hirschfeld's Interpretation of the Japanese Onnagata as Transvestites
  • Rainer Herrn (bio) and Michael Thomas Taylor (bio)

In 1913 Magnus Hirschfeld created what he referred to as the "Wall of Sexual Transitions" for the International Physicians' Congress in London.1 The first hint of Hirschfeld's intention to internationally communicate his evolving theories of sex and gender, the wall contained images of individuals structured into four quadrants that reflected categories central to Hirschfeld's theories: hermaphrodites, forms of androgyny, homosexuals, and transvestites. Today, this wall has survived only in several photographs that make it difficult to reconstruct all of its original images.2 This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that Hirschfeld took his images from a range of sources and contexts: erotica, works of anthropology and medicine, depictions of works of art, and popular publications such as newspapers and magazines. Among the images that can be distinguished, however, are [End Page 63] four photos of Japanese onnagata: male actors who played women's roles in Japanese Kabuki theater.3

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.

The "Wall of Sexual Transitions." This photo is emblematic of Hirschfeld's interpretation of gender. The wall was structured according to the categories it names: hermaphrodites (upper left), forms of androgyny (upper right), homosexuals (lower left), and transvestites (lower right). "Die ZwischenStufenwand im Institut," Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung, May 23, 1928, n.p.

Founded by a former shrine priestess in 1603, Kabuki had a long history of which Hirschfeld was most likely only partially aware.4 Hirschfeld [End Page 64] came to know of the onnagata in the context of debates that unfolded within the early homosexual movement and in the world's first journal for sexual science, the Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen (Yearbook for sexual transitions), which Hirschfeld founded and edited. Crucially, however, Hirschfeld never refers to them by their Japanese name, onnagata, calling them instead japanische Frauendarsteller (Japanese female impersonators). Hirschfeld followed this interest in the onnagata as one prominent example of what he called "sexual transitions" throughout his life, visiting onnagata performers in Japan in 1931 as part of his world tour, which lasted from November 1930 to March 1932. The appearance of these photographs on Hirschfeld's "Wall of Sexual Transitions" in 1913 reflects the strongly visual dimensions of his theories and classifications; the intention for including the photographs was to illustrate the universality and diversity of the sexual phenomena he was researching across world cultures. As this article will show, however, the images are more properly understood to represent projections of European ideas and sexual imagination onto Japanese culture.

Hirschfeld includes the onnagata under the category of transvestite, which he coined in 1910 to distinguish homosexuals from men who dressed in women's clothing, many of whom reported being heterosexual and objected to being included with homosexuals in earlier categories of "contrary sexual feeling." Including the onnagata on the "Wall of Sexual Transitions" served further to establish a contrast common to anthropological discourse between "cultured" or "civilized peoples" (Kulturvölker) and "natural peoples" (Naturvölker), who were represented on the wall by images depicting African American men with feminine breasts. These Japanese figures nevertheless maintained an ambivalent relationship to European cultural categories. For instance, Hirschfeld and others also spoke of the onnagata as "female impersonators" (Frauendarsteller), in analogy to cabaret and variété performers popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Western Europe. [End Page 65]

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 2.

Quadruple tableau of Japanese female impersonators from the "Wall of Sexual Transitions." The poor quality of this image is unavoidable since it is an enlargement of a portion of the photo of the Wall of Sexual Transitions (fig. 1), of which no high-resolution version exists. "Die Zwischenstufenwand im Institut," Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung, May 23, 1928, n.p.

In returning to Hirschfeld's perspective on the onnagata, this article aims to take up several important questions for a global history of sexology. Hirschfeld's engagement with the onnagata and the German sexological discussions in which he was one crucial interlocutor mark a salient moment within a wider exchange of sexological knowledge between Germany and...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 63-100
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.