Shunga: Early Erotica

Shunga - Gokugetsu, The Twelfth Month

Have you ever heard of shunga?

You might not have heard the name, but you’ve probably seen pictures of it on the internet. 

And if you haven’t, well, you’re in for a treat.

You might think that porn and erotica are something new, but you couldn’t be further from the truth.

There are dozens of examples of both, all the way since antiquity (and even beyond). 

Let’s take a look at Shunga and see if we can’t learn something today.

What is Shunga?

Shunga is the Japanese term for erotic art. Literally, it means “picture of spring,” with “spring” being slang for sex.

Typically, shunga is printed on woodblocks in ukiyo-e, a popular Japanese art from the 1600s to the 1800s.  

Before we continue, here’s a flash art history lesson about ukiyo-e:

  • Ukiyo-e was a movement that tried to express a noble view of modern urban life and attract the recently emerged chōnin class.
  • Shunga is a subgroup of this art form. 
  • Nearly every ukiyo-e artist made shunga at least once in their career.
Shunga - Wetting Fingers by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Wetting Fingers by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c.1837. | Source: akantiek.com

There are different representations of sexuality in Edo-period shunga. However, most pieces adhered to the aesthetics of daily living.

All classes and social groups had an appreciation for shunga, except for the shogunate. 

Influence and Inspiration

Shunga pulled most of its stylistic inspiration from Chinese art and culture, such as illustrations from Chinese medicine manuals around 1336 to 1573.

Shunga - Colorful Woodblocks
A roll in the teahouse: A colorful woodblock print of two lovers. | © PIE BOOKS | Source: japantimes.co.jp

Another strong influence was Zhou Fang, a prominent Chinese painter who drew oversized genitals on his subjects.

Shunga is a shortened form of shunkyū-higi-ga, the Japanese pronunciation for the set of 12 scrolls detailing 12 sexual acts a Chinese prince performed as a representation of yin yang.

But, shunga has just as much Japanese influence as it does Chinese, starting as early as 794.

Shunga - ‘Poem of the Pillow’ (‘Uta Makura’) by Kitagawa Utamaro
‘Poem of the Pillow’ (‘Uta Makura’) by Kitagawa Utamaro | Source: timeout.com

Between 794 and 1185, upper classes involved in the royal court possessed shunga in the form of handscrolls. 

These handscrolls contained the equivalent of ancient Japanese soap operas. Often, they involved sexual scandals from the royal court and monasteries.

The main characters in this early erotica were generally restricted to the upper class and monks.

Edo Period Shunga

Shunga peaked from 1603 to 1867 during the Edo period. Thanks to woodblock printing, the quantity and quality of art rose dramatically.

Like anything kinky or offbeat, the government tried stopping the production of shunga. The first attempt was a 1661 edict that banned erotic books, texts critical of the samurai, and more.

Shunga - Shiki burui juni-ko (Twelve Tastes in the Classification of Passion) by Katsukawa Shuncho. 1785
Shiki burui juni-ko (Twelve Tastes in the Classification of Passion) by Katsukawa Shuncho. 1785 | Source: spoon-tamago.com

But of course, this did nothing to stop the easy creation and distribution of shunga.

Then, in 1722, a much stricter edict that banned all new books without proper authorization passed.

So, shunga went underground, but that didn’t stop sales from thriving. Publishing guilds continuously sent memos to members not to distribute erotica, but these went ignored.

The Japanese government repeatedly attempted to stop shunga well into the late 18th-century.

As it turns out, however, the demise of shunga wasn’t the law.

Shunga - Sugimura Jihei, Three Lovers, mid 1680
Sugimura Jihei, Three Lovers, mid-1680 | Source: honolulumuseum.org

Around 1868-1912, Japan began adopting a lot of Western culture and technology. But what really ended Shunga’s popularity was photo-reproduction and erotic photographs.

Woodblock printing continued for a bit, but characters started wearing Western-style clothes and hairstyles.

Shunga in the West

In typical Western fashion, critics shunned shunga for being too naughty. 

For example, in 1859, an American businessman described it as “vile pictures executed in the best style of Japanese art.” 

Then, while visiting Japanese friends and their wives, they showed him copies of shunga they kept at home. It horrified him.

Of course, the 20th century brought little improvement to Westerner’s opinions of Japanese erotica. 

As late as 1975, Western museums still kept very little information about it, deeming shunga unfit for the public.

Hentai is the West’s modern-day equivalent shunga and is also sexually graphic. 

Hentai - Manga Page
Yawaraka View by MARUI Maru | Source: hentai2read.com

Shunga and the Masses

Men and women of every class had an appreciation for shunga. Wealthy aristocrats commissioned elaborate prints. Cheaper versions could be found in stores and libraries. 

Wealthy families used it as a sex-ed manual for their children, even though it was more expert-level than actual advice. 

So what about shunga hooked everyone?

Shunga - Kinoe no Komatsu’ by Katsushika Hokusai
Kinoe no Komatsu’ by Katsushika Hokusai | Source: timeout.com

For one, shunga portrayed a different world full of sexual opportunities that still reflected the real world. It was basically writing about real situations and people, but hotter and sexier.

The characters in these prints could be anyone, from a merchant to a farmer. Sometimes, artists shook things up with an occasional appearance by a Dutch or Portuguese character.

Stories were just an unrelated series of sexual situations with no real plot or storyline. Scenes pictured anything from seduction, cheating, teens, old folks, and sometimes octopuses.

Funnily enough, nudity is not totally pervasive. 

Nudity was common in communal baths, so it wasn’t something the Japanese considered erotic. 

But the clothes also helped identify various characters, were symbolic, or drew attention to naked parts.

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