Shunga – Erotica for the People

In early modern Japan, thousands of sexually explicit paintings, prints, and illustrated books with texts were produced, known as ‘spring pictures’ (shunga). Official life in this period was governed by strict Confucian laws, but private life was less controlled in practice.


Shunga is in some ways a unique phenomenon in pre-modern world culture, in terms of the quantity, the quality and the nature of the art that was produced. Its production was widespread between 1600-1900. For such a popular and prolonged school of art it remains relatively unknown and unexplored. The British Musuem recently held an exhibition of shunga; in his introduction Tim Clark, the curator of the exhibition, says that experts are “pretty sure that everybody in Japanese society from the ruling class down to the ordinary townsperson in the street used and enjoyed Shunga. This is a situation that would have been inconceivable in Europe at the same time.” It’s a shame then that little seems to be happening in Japan to further our understanding of this openly joyful art.

As the subtitle to the exhibition suggests – ‘Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art’ – there is much sensuality and, indeed, great humour, in the varied and beautifully detailed works. During the twentieth century, shunga was all but removed from popular and scholarly memory and became taboo. It’s hard to see how these pictures can be considered offensive or profane; although explicit, there is always a light-heartedness to undercut any risk of overly seedy appearances.

Frequently tender, funny and beautiful, shunga were mostly done within the popular school known as ‘pictures of the floating world’ (ukiyo-e), by celebrated artists such as Utamaro and Hokusai. Early modern Japan wasn’t exactly a place of sexual liberation, especially for women; however, the values promoted in shunga are generally positive towards sexual pleasure for all participants. With their focus on lovemaking, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual, in pairs or groups, there is such tenderness, humour and honesty in these works of art. Shunga is also known for its mutuality – pleasure for women as well as the men – and the shared pleasure is obvious in many of the pieces.

By far the majority of shunga depict the sexual relations of the ordinary people, the chonin, the townsmen, women, merchant class, artisans and farmers. Courtesans also form the subject of many shunga. Utamaro was particularly revered for his depictions of courtesans, which offered an unmatched level of sensitivity and psychological poise. Tokugawa courtesans could be described as the celebrities of their day, and Edo’s pleasure district, Yoshiwara, is often compared to Hollywood. Men saw them as highly eroticised due to their profession, but at the same time unattainable, since only the wealthiest, most cultured men would have any chance of sexual relations with one. Women saw them as distant, glamorous idols, and the fashions for the whole of Japan were inspired by the fashions of the courtesan. This fetishisation of the courtesan lifestyle is often reflected in shunga, though an overemphasis on glamour tends to ignore the realities of virtual sex slavery. It seems that Utamaro came closest to representing reality for these women, as they are often tragically depicted dreaming of escape and a better existence.

Shunga was probably enjoyed by both men and women of all classes. Superstitions and customs surrounding shunga suggest as much; in the same way that it was considered a lucky charm against death for a samurai to carry shunga, it was considered a protection against fire in merchant warehouses and the home. Although explained away as superstition, the common reason to own shunga was far more libidinous. Separation from the opposite sex for prolonged periods was common; the samurai lived in barracks for months at a time, and conjugal separation resulted from the sankin-kōtai system, and the merchants’ need to travel to obtain and sell goods meant they could be at sea for months at a time. Much of the evidence suggests that superstition surrounding shunga was maintained simply to keep up appearances, when really the men and women who enjoyed the work were probably looking to just have a crafty wank.

Perhaps the most famous shunga ever produced is Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (pictured above) which is taken from the book Kinoe no Komatsu (English: Young Pines), a three-volume collection of shunga published in 1814. The zoophilic picture shows a woman, probably an ama (shell diver) receiving oral sex from two octopi. The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is not the only shunga to show the possibilities of love between woman and octopus, and in fact there are several examples of sultry cephalopod action from Hokusai’s contemporary Yanagawa Shigenobu. No matter your opinion on the value and importance of shunga, it’s undeniable that they offer a view back into the private desires and motivations of a past Japanese culture. It’s easy to forget that figures from the past were real people too, and what better way to bring into focus a distant culture, than to have a brush with its kinky side.


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September 2021
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