Shunga (春画) is a Japanese term for erotic art. Most shunga are a type of ukiyo-e, usually executed in woodblock print format. While rare, there are extant erotic painted handscrolls which predate the Ukiyo-e movement. Translated literally, the Japanese word shunga meanspicture of spring; “spring” is a common euphemism for sex.
The ukiyo-e movement as a whole sought to express an idealisation of contemporary urban life and appeal to the new chōnin class. Following the aesthetics of everyday life, Edo period shunga varied widely in its depictions of sexuality. As a subset of ukiyo-e it was enjoyed by all social groups in the Edo period, despite being out of favour with the shogunate. Almost all ukiyo-e artists made shunga at some point in their careers.
Shunga were produced between the sixteenth century and the nineteenth century by ukiyo-e artists, since they sold more easily and at a higher price than their ordinary work. Shunga prints were produced and sold either as single sheets or—more frequently—in book form, called enpon. These customarily contained twelve images, a tradition with its roots in Chinese shunkyu higa. Shunga was also produced inhand scroll format, called kakemono-e (掛け物絵). This format was also popular, though more expensive as the scrolls had to be individually painted.
The quality of shunga art varies, and few ukiyo-e painters remained aloof from the genre. Experienced artists found it to their advantage to concentrate on their production. This led to the appearance of shunga by first-rate artists, such as the ukiyo-e painter perhaps best known in the Western world, Hokusai (see The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife). Ukiyo-e artists owed a stable livelihood to such customs, and producing a piece of shunga for a high-ranking client could bring them sufficient funds to live on for about six months. Among other Japanese artists, the world-renowned Japanese artist Hajime Sorayama uses his special hand brush painting technique and hanko stamp signature method in the late 20th and early 21st centuries to create modern day shunga art in the same tradition of the past artists like Hokusai.
Full-colour printing, or nishiki-e, developed around 1765, but many shunga prints predate this. Prior to this, colour was added to monochrome prints by hand, and from 1744 benizuri-e allowed the production of prints of limited colours. Even after 1765 many shunga prints were produced using older methods. In some cases this was to keep the cost low, but in many cases this was a matter of taste.
Shunga produced in Edo tended to be more richly coloured than those produced in Kyoto and Osaka, mainly owing to a difference in aesthetic taste between these regions—Edo has a taste for novelty and luxury, while the kamigata region preferred a more muted, understated style. This also translates into a greater amount of background detail in Edo Shunga.
After 1722 most artists refrained from signing shunga works. However, between 1761 and 1786 the implementation of printing regulations became more relaxed, and many artists took to concealing their name as a feature of the picture (such as calligraphy on a fan held by a courtesan) or allusions in the work itself (such as Utamaro‘s empon entitled, ‘Utamakura.’)
By far the majority of shunga depict the sexual relations of the ordinary people, the chonin, the townsmen, women, merchant class, artisans and farmers. Occasionally there also appear Dutch or Portuguese foreigners.
Courtesans also form the subject of many shunga. Utamaro was particularly revered for his depictions of courtesans, which offered an unmatched level of sensitivity and psychological nuance. Tokugawa courtesans could be described as the celebrities of their day, and Edo’s pleasure district, Yoshiwara, is often compared to Hollywood. Men saw them as highly eroticised due to their profession, but at the same time unattainable, since only the wealthiest, most cultured men would have any chance of sexual relations with one. Women saw them as distant, glamorous idols, and the fashions for the whole of Japan were inspired by the fashions of the courtesan. For these reasons the fetish of the courtesan appealed to many.
Works depicting courtesans have since been criticised for painting an idealised picture of life in the pleasure quarters. It has been argued that they masked the situation of virtual slavery that sex workers lived under. However, Utamaro is just one example of an artist who was sensitive to the inner life of the courtesan, for example, showing them wistfully dreaming of escape from Yoshiwara through marriage.
Similarly, kabuki actors are often depicted, many of whom worked as gigolos. These carried the same fetish of the sex worker, with the added quality of them often being quite young. They are often shown with samurai.
Both painted handscrolls and illustrated erotic books (empon) often presented an unrelated sequence of sexual tableaux, rather than a structured narrative. A whole variety of possibilities are shown—men seduce women, women seduce men; men and women cheat on each other; all ages from virginal teenagers to old married couples; even octopi were occasionally featured.
While most shunga were heterosexual, many depicted male-on-male trysts. Woman-on-woman images were less common but there are extant works depicting this. Masturbation was also depicted. The perception of sexuality differed, of course, in Tokugawa Japan from that in the modern Western world, and people were less likely to associate with one particular sexual preference. For this reason the many sexual pairings depicted were a matter of providing as much variety as possible.
The backstory to shunga prints can be found in accompanying text or dialogue in the picture itself, and in props in the background.Symbolism also featured widely, such as the use of plum blossoms to represent virginity or tissues to symbolise impending ejaculation.
In almost all shunga the characters are fully clothed. This is primarily because nudity was not inherently erotic in Tokugawa Japan – people were used to seeing the opposite sex naked in communal baths. It also served an artistic purpose; it helped the reader identify courtesans and foreigners, the prints often contained symbolic meaning, and it drew attention to the parts of the body that were revealed, i.e., the genitalia.
Shunga couples are often shown in nonrealistic positions with exaggerated genitalia. Explanations for this include increased visibility of the sexually explicit content, artistic interest and psychological impact: that is, the genitalia is interpreted as a ‘second face,’ expressing the primal passions that the everyday face is obligated by giri to conceal, and is therefore the same size as the head and placed unnaturally close to it by the awkward position.