Images that depict sexual activity have mainly been called shunga since the Meiji period. This means that the term is only about 150 years old. When the term appeared in a text, the Chinese characters that were used for the word usually had a phonetic luster in Japanese writing (kana) translating warai-e (laughing pictures).
Other words that were used in ancient times were osokutsu-no-e and oko-e. The etymological background of the word Osokutsu refers to the term ensoku, which means “recline to rest”. Oko, in contrast, means something foolish that evokes laughter.
Pleasing the Gods
Warai-e transferred the meaning of oko-e. As a symbol the character warai evolved from the figure of a shrine maiden holding her hands high up while she sings and dances. This because, human joy and laughter are ways of pleasing the gods.
Story of the Sun Deity in the Cave
The story of the shrine maiden is known under the title “Rock Door of Heaven” as told in the book Kojiki (An Account of Ancient Matters, dating 711-712). In the story, the sun deity Amaterasu-no-omikami retreats to a cave, and closes the entrance with a stone door, that turns the world into darkness.
Displays Her Breasts
Just outside the cave, the shrine maiden Ame-no-uzume (Fig.3), as if possessed, starts a wild dance in which she partially undresses and displays her breasts and even her vagina. The watching gods burst out in laughter, and hearing this, the curious Amaterasu, who wants to know what’s going on, opens the rock cave and peers out. At last the darkness gave way to light.
One of the Japanese artists who excelled in laughing pictures was Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889). He was responsible for the last great outburst of laughter in the history of Japanese erotic pictures. Below you can find more examples that were either by Kyosai’s hand or one of his followers…