The cultural perspective in Japan is wilder than you might think

“Even though she looks old, she is really young” by Utаgаwа Kunіyοѕhі 1847 – 1848.

At first glance, the picture appears perfectly innocent: a 19th-century, posh portrait of a woman sipping tea. Upon closer examination, we learn she’s made up of entangled copulating bodies. Welcome to the fascinating world of old Japanese erotica. Known as “shunga” (春画), the genre flourished in the Edo period (1600s-1800s), and the artworks didn’t just dabble in the strange, niche, and fetishized realms of erotica. They rejoiced in the diversity of pleasure: shunga could be non-binary, funny, and tender; historical, luxurious, and even spooky. Though they varied in surrealism, they always fought the same, commendable battle: showing that sex and pleasure were worthy of nuanced narrative. As such, it opened up a wacky, inclusive place for Japan to get hot and heavy…

Shіgenоbu – Man and woman making love by Yаnаgаwа Shіgenоbu.

Shunga, which literally translates to “Picture of Spring” (and a classic sex metaphor), was a blanket term for Japanese erotica, which, as we’ll see, can turn from fairly tame to utterly bonkers in the blink of an eye. Historians can trace it as far back as the Heian period (794 to 1192 A.D.), but it was the dawn of the Edo Period’s woodblock print that made owning art, and thus, good old smut, a possibility for folks everywhere on the social ladder.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1829-1833.

Even if you have never heard of the Edo Period, you have likely seen one of its most iconic woodblock prints, by Katsushika Hokusai. But here’s another one of Hokusai’s famous works, this time from the shunga genre. Be warned: this one really pushes the boundaries for our ensuing journey into shunga insanity, so brace yourself:

Initially, shunga was only available to the upper crusts of society. However, as cheaper production and wider distribution began, it was able to hit its famously, ahem, eclectic stride and blossom in accordance with its growing, diverse audience. There was truly something for everyone when it came to this art form. Craving some old-school, courtly love? You got it. Seeking depictions of snake phalluses, octopuses, and skeletons? Shunga had something for you too.

Often, it found ways of retelling ancient myths and parodying current events. Blabbering politicians, haughty courtesans, fabled sea monsters, and gods – they all found their way into shunga, especially through the artistry of Utamaro Kitagawa, one of the last greats of the ukiyo-e movement. His 1836 collection, Ghost Stories: Night Procession of the Hundred Demons, was populated with a world of mind-boggling demons depicted in the form of genitalia.

Shunshoku Hatsune no Ume by Utagawa Kunisada, 1842.

Shunga, the highly stylized erotica, even found its way into wartime propaganda, serving as a means of “reconciling” opposing parties:

A Japanese propaganda poster from the time of the Russo-Japanese War.

Why did this highly stylized erotic art gain popularity so quickly? Well, it was largely thanks to the dawn of the Edo Period, which was somewhat like ancient Japan’s peak “Viva Las Vegas” years—and the city of Edo, also known as present-day Tokyo, was the epicenter of it all. The Tokugawa Shogunate had risen to power, uniting previously warring clans. Suddenly, peace was the priority. Samurai took up day jobs. A new school of art emerged, preaching the concept of an imagined “floating world” (the literal translation of the term) in which hedonism, style, and intellect intertwined. It all unfolded in the Yoshiwara Red Light District, with its vibrant cast of Kabuki theater actors, Geishas, brothels, bathhouse-goers, and artists. Despite its frivolity, the delicate brushstrokes of shunga still encapsulate the preciousness of that sexual and cultural renaissance.

Onnayu (Ladies’ Bath), a colored woodcut by Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815) depicting a male attendant Sasuke (upper left corner) tending to women.

Most shunga artists used pseudonyms until the 18th century when printing censorship laws were relaxed. Most of the works were created by men, but they were also marketed towards women and given to brides-to-be as almanacs for self-improvement and shared pleasure. In that sense, they were seldom pigeonholed into a notion of sex for sex’s sake, but meant to nourish a person’s life on multiple levels. Often considered good luck charms, they were believed to keep the fire at bay and a soldier safe in battle.

Two Lovers, Hokusai From The Adonis Plant (Fukujuso) Woodblock print, from a set of 12, ōban ca. 1815.

It is remarkable to witness the diverse range of erotic expressions, from niche tentacle fantasies to depictions of generic courtly love. However, things become even more intriguing when we consider the representation of female and male queer couples, as well as a third gender known as wakashu. This latter category was a particularly curious aspect of life in Edo Japan, as wakashu were typically young men who assumed a non-binary gender role to please both men and women in erotic contexts. Male-to-female cross-dressing was also prevalent, from the streets of the Red Light district to the stages of Kabuki theaters.

With the advent of photography, shunga began to lose its allure for the public. The onset of Western influences in the 20th century also brought about a wave of heteronormativity and an exoticized gaze that dismissed it as nothing more than confusing pillow-book smut. Nevertheless, the legacy of shunga on erotica, both written and visual, has proven immense over time. Writers like Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and D.H. Lawrence took many notes from its range and narrative depth. The art form’s capacity for storytelling, as well as humor, went far beyond being a mere party trick; it helped initiate open conversations on sexuality.

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