Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art by Timothy Clark, C Andrew Gerstle, Aki Ishigami & Akiko Yano (edd); Japanese Erotic Art: The Hidden World of Shunga by Ofer Shagan - review by Lesley Downer

Lesley Downer

Springing to Attention

Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art


The British Museum Press 536pp £50

Japanese Erotic Art: The Hidden World of Shunga


Thames & Hudson 472pp £45

Shunga – Japanese erotic art – depicts a world awash with sex. In a famous image, a woman lies on the sea floor, head thrown back in ecstasy, as a huge-eyed octopus pleasures her. Couples with enormous, precisely delineated sex organs make exuberant love in bedrooms, on verandas, in baths, in kitchens, on boats, in gardens, under trees, even while doing the washing. They do it observed or hidden, in groups, with the opposite sex, the same sex and by themselves, with cats, dogs and sometimes rats enthusiastically mating nearby. 

The term itself means ‘spring pictures’, ‘spring’ being a euphemism for ‘sex’. Many of the images are extremely beautiful, with the focus not just on the entwined limbs but on the entranced faces and exquisite patterns and colours of the robes. These gorgeous pictures were created by woodblock print artists and are crafted with delicacy and precision of line.

Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art is the huge, beautiful, scholarly and exhaustive catalogue of the current exhibition of the same name at the British Museum (the exhibition runs until 5 January). Until now this area of Japanese art has been beyond the pale, little known or studied in the West and rejected in modern Japan, where it is still largely taboo (there is no plan to show the exhibition there).

So the exhibition breaks new ground, not just in displaying shunga but in bringing it into the mainstream, accompanied by the full panoply of scholarly apparatus. In their contributions, 35 experts, many Japanese, discuss the history and varieties of shunga, how paintings and painted scrolls gave way to books and woodblock prints, and questions of attribution. They also write about censorship, shunga as political satire, grotesque shunga and foreigners and children in shunga. It’s more than a little eyebrow-raising to turn from the scholarly text to the eye-popping pictures – hugely endowed figures enmeshed in unlikely positions. (Humorous Japanese poems of the time advised against trying such positions at home for fear of injury.)

Shunga originated from illustrations in ancient Chinese manuals on attaining longevity, though the Japanese were always more interested in pleasure. The Japanese creation myth tells how the world came into being through the lovemaking of two gods and continues with the story of the sun goddess who hid in a cave, casting the world into darkness, and was only lured out when a goddess performed a lusty dance and the assembled gods burst out laughing – scenes that are lavishly depicted in shunga.

Another word for shunga is warai-e (‘laughing pictures’) and many are clearly meant to be funny. They give a fresh outlook on Japan – not the stereotypical besuited businessmen or austere Zen gardens but a raunchy, humorous, down-to-earth culture. Many of the pictures include large amounts of text and, helpfully, much is translated, which opens up whole new perspectives. Sometimes the text is dialogue, sometimes it tells the story behind the images. This is an exhibition catalogue that repays close reading.

The earliest pictures, mainly handscrolls from the 14th century, depict erotic encounters between court ladies with floor-length hair and courtiers in tall black caps. They also tell ribald stories, such as that of the priest smuggled into the harem-like women’s quarters in a bag, where he pleasures women through a hole in the fabric. Later shunga include images in which heads are depicted as genitals, or heads and genitals change places. Men make love to beautiful women, not realising that they’re ghosts or skeletons or – most frightening of all – foxes.

Shunga was regularly censored, not for its sexual or scatological content but because it was subversive. As an underground art form, it was used to make covert attacks on the shogunal government, setting a picture or series of pictures (which were read like a manga cartoon) in a past era which readers would immediately recognise as a satire on present-day rulers. In 1804 Utamaro, one of the greatest of the woodblock print artists, portrayed the 16th-century warlord Hideyoshi surrounded by wives and concubines. At the time this was seen as a jibe at the promiscuity of the ruling shogun. The print was banned and Utamaro was imprisoned.

Most households owned shunga. It was a standard part of the bridal trousseau, providing an instruction manual for young couples. It was also believed that shunga offered protection against fire and in battle. Samurai families kept shunga in the armour chest and as late as the Second World War soldiers carried shunga as amulets. Many shunga were expensive collectors’ items and women as well as men enjoyed them. Shunga were given to Commodore Matthew Perry when he arrived in 1854 to ‘open’ Japan and in 1859 an American in Yokohama noted with amazement that respectable housewives viewed shunga without embarrassment. But in the modern era the government adopted Western values and shunga was legislated out of existence. In the century and a half from 1868 attitudes changed. People discovering their great-grandfathers’ shunga collections burned them.

Ofer Shagan has collected shunga for 25 years and has some 24,000 images assembled in 7,000 prints, books and handscrolls, which is a lot of shunga. In his Japanese Erotic Art: The Hidden World of Shunga he shows a vast amount, several on each page, many of which are not in the exhibition catalogue and have never been seen before.

Shagan’s remarks are limited by the fact that, as he freely admits, he can’t read Japanese and therefore doesn’t understand the texts. His comments are restricted to illuminating the images using his extensive knowledge of Japanese society and culture. Nevertheless his book is fun to read and there are a huge number of extraordinary images.

Both of these are beautiful works and excellent additions to the growing literature on shunga.

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