Shunga: 3 Essential Things to Know About Japanese Erotic Prints


Shunga: 3 Essential Things to Know About Japanese Erotic Prints

by Cezary Jan Strusiewicz | ART

Woodblock Print by Sugimura Jihei, 1680s

Many people like to label Japan as the land of depraved pornography, especially after they’ve seen the country’s tentacle cartoon porn or the erotic woodblock print that seemingly started it all: The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. The 1814 image depicting a pearl diver having sex with two octopuses is probably the most infamous but also wholly unrepresentative example of shunga, a style of Japanese erotic art that reached its peak in the 17th century.


1. What is Shunga?

The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, Shunga Woodblock Print by Katsushika Hokusai, 1814

Shunga (春画) literally translates to Spring pictures due to Spring being a popular euphemism for sex, also seen in the Japanese word for prostitution: baishun (売春, literally sell Spring). However, shunga prints were more than just colorful depictions of sex. Throughout history, they were everything from pornography to talismans and wedding presents, all while remaining the undisputed symbols of Japan’s urban landscape.

The erotic shunga art came out of the ukiyo-e movement which celebrated the lives of merchants, craftsmen, and the like. Or, in other words, Japan’s middle class: ordinary people who liked to have ordinary sex in the privacy of their ordinary homes.

That’s why the majority of shunga scenes are depicted from a low angle. It was a way to figuratively bring the viewer down to the subjects’ level and, as a result, bring them closer to the completely normal act of sex. In short, a lot of shunga images were aiming to normalize sex, in opposition to the somewhat puritanical Confucianism which dominated Japan’s government at the time (and even got the erotic pictures banned throughout the country on a few occasions). In doing so, shunga artists were actually also going back to their cultural roots.


2. Shunga Art in Japanese Culture

Lovers' Suicide, Shunga Woodblock Print by Keishu Takeuchi, 1900s

Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan, has always seen sex as something completely normal. In fact, according to Shinto mythology, the first Japanese island, Onogoro, was created via symbolic ejaculation by the god Izanagi, while all other isles literally came out of the womb of his wife, the goddess Izanami. This cultural heritage that doesn’t view sex as anything shameful is what makes shunga so uniquely Japanese. It also explains why shunga prints almost never feature fully naked people.


Untitled Shunga Woodblock Print, In Full Armor

For millennia, both male and female farmers in Japan would occasionally work their rice fields naked or partially nude. Together with Shinto’s influence and the eventual advent of mixed public baths, it didn’t take long for nudity to undergo a certain desexualization in Japanese culture. As a result, artists had to accentuate eroticism of their shunga art through something besides naked bodies, like by making their subject’s genitalia comically large.

To learn more about Japanese visions of beauty, enjoy the masterpieces of Utamaro:


3. Shunga Prints as Instruction Manuals?

Untitled Shunga Woodblock Print, Cycling for Pleasure

Hopefully the exaggerated depictions didn’t scare/disappoint too many Japanese women, seeing as it wasn’t uncommon to give young brides shunga prints as instruction manuals for their wedding nights. Additionally, shunga were also used as talismans against fire amongst merchants, or at least that’s the excuse they gave for carrying the pictures in their kimono sleeves.

Not all woodblock prints are erotic of course, such as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's 100 aspects of the moon:


Most interestingly of all, though, shunga could also be a source of laughter, like in the following 19th century picture of a cat playing with the testicles of a man in mid-coitus.

Shunga Woodblock Print by Kawanabe Kyosai, 1870s

In conclusion, shunga were the sum total of internet art hundreds of years before there was an internet!

I wonder what the comments would have been on an Edo period internet message board? What do you think about the Shunga images you have seen here? Let us know below!


January 12, 2018 | ArtWoodblock Prints