Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art


Note: The pictures below are of an erotic nature and contain people having sex. Need I say more?

I think it’s fair to say that, traditionally, the British are very prudish about sex and porn, but in Japan it’s all very much out in the open. This is one of the reasons why I went along to the ‘Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art’ exhibition at the British Museum – we’re used to seeing naked people posing in paintings and statues, but how often do we see them having sex? Not very often, at least in European culture.

In fact, when the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu sent gifts to Britain  in the sixteenth century, there was some shunga art them, which were promptly burned because they were so obscene.

AN00798403_001_lShunga, literally meaning ‘spring pictures’, is originally a Chinese expression and the term given to erotic Japanese paintings, prints and illustration. Traditional Shintō beliefs celebrated the union of the sexes and the depiction of sex was not seen as inherently sinful or degrading in Japan, as it was never constrained by strict Confucianism to the same degree as in China and Korea. Shunga art was mostly created by artists of the ukiyo-e or ‘floating world’ school, culminating with explicit works by iconic artists such as Hokusai.

The earliest shunga appear as graffiti hidden on seventh-century Buddhist statues and in sophisticated eighth-century sex manuals, often based on Chinese originals. From the twelfth century onwards, painted shunga emaki (‘handscrolls’) probably became an established art-form among the priesthood, aristocracy and samurai classes.

Shunga was used as a guide to lovemaking, such as young married couples, or for more unusual functions such as a talisman for warriors or fire protection for property owners. Shunga parodies of serious art and literature were also created and the townspeople used them to subvert the orthodoxy of the ruling class, who also got plenty of pleasure and amusement out of them. One of my favourite collection images was Torii Kiyonaga’s Mane’emon, a collection of images about a man who is shrunk down to the size of the bean and travels around Japan watching people having sex and learning about their different habits. In a word, it was ‘wacky’.

AN00583055_001_lYou might wonder ‘is shunga just early Japanese porn?’ and the answer is ‘no’, although its influence can still be seen today in modern culture. Shunga is pretty matter-of-fact and isn’t shy about, well, anything. It’s funny and intriguing but also reminds us just how natural (and fun!) sex is. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the really weird stuff like Kinoe no Komatsu, which is literally two octopi ravishing a woman who appears to be quite enjoying herself. Oh, Japan.

Given how certain politicians and other public figures are considering what could ultimately be a blanket ban on all porn, I think they could all do with going to this exhibition and getting a little bit of perspective! Shunga has been around for centuries and, although we joke about how weird Japanese porn is, they’re a lot more grown up about it than a lot of Brits. Plus, if you see how ridiculously certain body parts are drawn, it’s pretty obvious that the genre makes fun of itself and is not trying to warp many minds.

thNot many people over here have heard of shunga, so I really recommend this exhibition if you’re interested in finding out more about this area of Japanese culture. It’s probably not the best place to take a date or grandparent, or if you’re extremely prudish. There was a lot of giggling and pointing in the room, which is the exact same effect that the art had on people centuries ago. Who knows, maybe this is the beginning of a slow process of getting the British to be a bit more open and mature about sex?

Image credits: The British Museum

Next time: I’m going to be taking a mini blogging break as I’m packing to move flat (again!) and am cracking on with some novel writing, so this will be the last post from me for a bit. I’ll still be updating the Facebook page and rambling on Twitter, so you can follow me over there. Otherwise, I’ll be back in mid-November with a video from MCM Comic Con!

2 thoughts on “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art

  1. Pingback: Film review: Makeup Room | Sophie's Japan Blog

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