Shunga: Traditional Japanese Pornography

Manga?

Yes

Anime?

Yes

Shunga?

Ummmm…

That’s one that not many people have heard of. Literally translated as “picture of spring”, it is an age-old Japanese erotic art form usually printed on woodblock. A sub genre of ukiyo-e, Shunga (春画) reached its pinnacle in the Edo Period from 1603 to 1867 and survived repeated government attempts at suppression. However, before they were shunned their widespread use and availability was commonplace and endeavoured to depict everyday life in the Edo.

Kitagawa Utamaro, Man Seducing a Young Woman (Otoko to musume), 1801-1804. Ink and colour on silk, 70 x 55 cm, Tokushu Paper Mfg. Co., Ltd.
Kitagawa Utamaro, Man Seducing a Young Woman (Otoko to musume), 1801-1804. Ink and colour on silk, 70 x 55 cm, Tokushu Paper Mfg. Co., Ltd.

Carried around as lucky charms by Samurais and merchants as well as being offered to newly-wed’s as a type of sex education; shunga was accepted and used by everyone, regardless of gender and/or social class. They depicted a variety of sexual positions as well as various different partnerships; male-female relations, male-male relations, scenes including animals and all manner of sea and mythical creatures. The genres varied from the romantic, the silly to the extremely bizarre and what could be now considered as quite vulgar.

The pornographic element of shunga cannot be denied but they were and still are an idealised representation of the aesthetically pleasing, often portraying genitalia in a celebrated, yet exaggerated manner.

Many artists painted shunga pieces as well as their usual artistic creations as they were more profitable and enabled them to follow in their other artistic directions. Creating shunga was a means of supporting struggling artists as it was such a popular art form.

Katsushika Hokusai, The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, 1814. From the book Young Pines (Kinoe no Komatsu). Woodblock print in book form, 22 x 15.5 cm (Cover), Ritsumeikan ARC.
Katsushika Hokusai, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, 1814. From the book Young Pines (Kinoe no Komatsu). Woodblock print in book form, 22 x 15.5 cm (Cover), Ritsumeikan ARC.

Those renowned for their shunga pieces include iconic Japanese artists Katsushika Hokusai, Kitagawa Utamaro and Utagawa Hiroshige. The great Hokusai, an artist best known for his great wave painting, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is also extremely well known for a particular shunga piece, the slightly more erotic The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. Featuring two octopi pleasuring a woman, a young ama diver, this shunga erotica was first published in 1814 and has become symbolic of the genre.

Shunga is said to have also inspired great artists like Picasso and Rodin as well as other Japanese art forms. The tradition of Japanese erotic images continues to live in the modern manga and anime although the blatant erotic nature of shunga still creates mixed reactions in art in both in western world its country of origin. The specific cultural significance of the art may be lost, specifically with regards to the erotic strains of manga and anime, but its innate link to Japan and its people is not.

Although, shunga may have depicted different types of relationships and had different stylistic approaches, they were made for everyone in the Edo to enjoy. The kind of manga we see today targets specific audiences; just like ukiyo-e, manga and anime also have all their own sub-genres such as romance, sci-fi, etc.

Katsushika Hokusai, Shunga: Drawing of a Couple in Love, c. 1780. Colour woodblock print, 24.9 x 37.4 cm. Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu
Katsushika Hokusai, Shunga: Drawing of a Couple in Love, c. 1780. Colour woodblock print, 24.9 x 37.4 cm. Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu

The biggest difference in modern day Japanese art appears to be how erotic art is perceived by the audience. In modern Japan, shunga isn’t so common in day to day life but manga and anime appeal to both sexes and all sexual preferences, just like the shunga of the past. The development and growth of Japanese erotic art has retained some stylistic similarities but just like in the development of western art, many things have changed. Shunga however can still be considered the more traditional precedent to modern day erotic manga and anime.

With Parkstone’s Forbidden Asia uncover more on traditional Japanese pornography as well as the subtleties of Chinese eroticism. Don’t be shy and explore their differences and similarities with the high quality illustrations.

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