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The Secret Lesbian Encounters in Ukiyo-e Shunga

Pictures of lesbians were also popular in shunga (although they are very rare!). The depicted women are usually shown using a special dildo (harigata), composed like a double-sided male member. Although I have seen pictures in which a woman was wearing a mask (see the second print in the video below!) of a male kabuki actor, I have never seen a woman dressed as a male (while this kind of cross-dressing was very common in male homoerotic scenes).

Lesbian couple with tortoise-shell harigata by Kunisada

Fig.1. ‘Lesbian couple with tortoise-shell harigata*‘ (c.1842) from the series ‘Shiki no sugatami (Viewing Forms in the Four Seasons)‘ by Utagawa Kunisada


Only very rarely are the women shown touching or kissing each other or having oral sex. Most, if not all. of the artists were men so they may have been inclined to present lesbianism less as a sexual tendency and more as a response to a lack of male presence.

lesbian shunga with Lesbian couple using a tagaigata (double-sided dildo)

Fig.2. ‘Lesbian couple using a tagaigata**‘ excerpt from a primitive shunga scroll from the 1650s. Painted by an Unknown Master

Male Fantasies

There’s very little known about lesbian love in the Edo era so there is a big chance that these kind of scenes were merely male fantasies. A very early (c.1650) and rare example of a primitive shunga scroll paintings featuring lesbian activity (see Fig.2.)

Video on Lesbian shunga:

Mijn film (Lesbian Shunga)
lesbian shunga Female servants making love by Hokusai

Female servants making love‘ (c.1814) from the series ‘Kinoe no komatsu (Languishing for Love/ Young Pine Saplings)‘ by Katsushika Hokusai


Two female servants who have interrupted their activities for the lord and are now making love using a dildo. A design from Hokusai’s acclaimed Kinoe no komatsu-series that was published in 1814.

Lesbian encounter with the use of tagaigata attributed to Keishu Takeuchi

Lesbian encounter with the use of tagaigata‘ (c.1900) attributed to Keishu Takeuchi (1861-1942)

lesbian shunga by Gessai Gabimaru

Lesbian encounter‘ (c.1790s) from the series ‘Picture Book: The Laughable Erotic Shellfish (Ehon warai ga)‘ by Gessai Gabimaru

lesbian couple using a dildo by Keisai Eisen

Lesbian encounter ‘ (c.1838) from the series ‘Shunshoku hana no shizuku (Erotic Drops of Flower Petals)‘ by Keisai Eisen (1790-1848)


A sensual encounter between two young girls using a tagaigata. Striking is that both their faces are partly or completely covered. The insert features a peacock that seems to observe their activities.

Two copulating females using a tagaigata by Utagawa Kuninao

Two copulating females using a tagaigata‘ (c.1827) from the series ‘Imose-yama‘ by Utagawa Kuninao

Favorite Actor

These two love-making females are triggered by the ukiyo-e print depicting their favorite actor that lays beside them. Just like the storage box that normally houses the tagaigata (double-sided dildo) they are using. One of their colleagues is passionately observing them in the other room.

Lesbian couple with strap-on dildo by Kikugawa Eizan

Lesbian couple with strap-on dildo (harigata)‘ (c.1820) by Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1867)

Lesbian sex with a Tengu mask

Egoyomi ‘Lesbian couple using a Tengu mask‘ (c.1830) attributed to Keisai Eisen (1790-1848)

Shikake-e (Trick picture) with moveable double-sided dildo - Lesbian fantasy

Shikake-e (Trick picture) with moveable double-sided dildo ‘Lesbian fantasy‘ (c.1840) by Utagawa school

Lesbian couple wearing a tortoise-shell harigata

Lesbian couple wearing a tortoise-shell harigata (dildo) have found sensual inspiration after reading a shunga book‘ (c.1850) by a member of the Utagawa school

lesbian orgy Orgy including females making love to each other using various dildos

Orgy including lesbians using various dildos‘ (c.1850) from the series ‘Ko-u so no jin yori haseide daigasen no zu‘ by Utagawa Kunisada II

lesbian orgy Orgy including females making love to each other using various dildos

Orgy including lesbian activity‘ (c.1850) from the series ‘Ko-u so no jin yori haseide daigasen no zu‘ by Utagawa Kunisada II

lesbian shunga with female threesome using dildos

Lesbian threesome with harigata dildos‘ (c.1760) by Tsukioka Settei

Lesbians experimenting with a harigata while looking at a shunga book

Painting featuring ‘Lesbians experimenting with a harigata while looking at a shunga book‘ (c.1900s) by an unknown Meiji artist

Rare scene with two young females and two males making love to each other' (c.1840) by Utagawa school

Rare gay scene with two young females and two males making love to each other‘ (c.1840) by Utagawa school

Click HERE for more lesbian designs…!!!

Or HERE for shunga art displaying sensual lesbian encounters for sale…!!

*  a harigata is an artificial penis (dildo)
** a tagaigata is a double-sided dildo

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Stephen Maire


Stephen Maire

on 18 January 2017

Lesbian shunga is not particularly common. There are perhaps 20 images that are routinely put forth to demonstrate that lesbian shunga is common, and over the years I have pulled together perhaps 60 images, but in the world of shunga this is but a drop in the ocean. That the same few images continue to be used to illustrate lesbian shunga highlights how limited such images truly are. Ofer Shagan's "Japanese Erotic Art", perhaps the most extensive and diverse book of shunga images did little to expand the range of images of lesbian shunga. Moreover, in many cases we are not even looking at new images, but an earlier image redone by a later artist, giving not a new image but a recycled old image. If we expand the field of vision a bit we can take in some Chinese images, but these seem even fewer than those of Japan. When considering lesbian shunga, s couple thoughts are paramount. First, the Japanese or Chinese outlook on lesbianism. Second, the role of shunga. The general view is that lesbian relations were tolerated. However, it is necessary to put this into context. The context in this case being a household of a single male and multiple females. In this situation it was accepted that the need or desire for sex would lead to relations among women when the male was unavailable. This is the view cited by Van Gulik in "Sexual Life in Ancient China" and repeated both by Screech in "Sex and the Floating World" and Shagan in "Japanese Erotic Art". Van Gulik does note that there are references to true lesbian love in China, but as you and others note, scenes of lesbian love seem rare. Van Gulik being the earliest writer on the subject can be credited with the original analysis. Given the modest volume of lesbian shunga, Screech and Shagan appear to simply accept the Van Gulik view. The view that lesbian relations exist only in a context where a man is not present would seem to create an environment for lesbianism that is not threatening to men; i.e., there is no competition for sex with women. The argument in support of this reasoning is that almost all images of lesbian shunga show the women with a harigata, either single or double ended. The harigata suggests that what is desired is the male member, not love or affection. Hence, the women are seeking not a relationship with another woman, but a male member. Among the images that are available few seem to contradict this and that is of an older woman seducing a younger woman. Note as well that in this case the older woman uses her fingers to arouse the youngerwoman, not a harigata. (Kuniyoshi Approach AKAntiek 1008)(Kuniyoshi Aproach 2 AKAntiek 1006) (Toyokuni I Music Teacher AK Antiek 1082 15 May 08) In almost all other cases a harigata or similar implement is used, reinforcing the idea of lesbianism filling in for the lack of a man. That a harigata is used removes the threat of lesbianism since the harigata makes it clear that a man is wanted, not a woman. As you have noted, there are few images of women kissing and none that I have seen of oral sex between women. Beyond the older woman/younger woman or teacher/student image cited above there seems little to suggest lesbian love as opposed to lesbian sex. Taken as a whole consideration of this first point seems to reinforce the second concerning the role of shunga. Most commentators on the subject of shunga are inclined to the view that shunga was meant for a male audience. Even within this view one can have such diverse opinions as Screech (pornography) and Shagen (education and humor). Nevertheless, if we accept this point that the target audience was male, then lesbian shunga is designed to fulfill a male fantasy. Again, regular depiction of the harigata would seem to endorse this through the implication that the women are engaged in sex as a substitute for the male member, not engaged in love between women. Beyond lesbian intercourse there are several other scenes that are often classed as lesbian that may or may not be. Three types come to mind: ama divers, bathhouse scenes and grooming scenes.The ama divers seems to be the most easily clarified. I have recorded only a single image (Hokusai) of lesbian sex among ama. More common are largely nude images or divers who are revealing their sex. I would guess that these images are an appeal to the exotic rather than lesbianism per se. More common in the case of the ama are images with octopus, but these images are a rape and domination fantasy that continues in Japan to this day. Bathhouse scenes are confusing. For much of the period of shunga the bathhouses were coed. One hardly needed a picture of a nude woman bathing when one could go to a bathhouse and see the real thing. Perhaps bathhouse scenes of women should be viewed as the "view at home" reminder of what lays within the bathhouse. Grooming scenes would seem to address another male fantasy of many women available for one man. Hence in the scene there are typically five or six women, but the viewer, male, has them all to himself. There are some explicit versions of this in the case of orgy scenes that have one man present amidst five or six women. In these images all the body parts of the man are being used to pleasure the women or the woman are again using harigata to pleasure themselves if they are not the ones having sex with the man. All of this would seem to make lesbian shunga a fairly minor albeit interesting subset of shunga as a whole. As with some many other types of shunga, perhaps even more so, there is a limited range of images, enough to confirm that there was interest, but not so many as to make it a major part of shunga.




on 22 January 2017

Thanks a lot for your extensive observations on the subject of lesbianism in shunga, Stephen. You are absolutely right on its scarcity (only once in a while I come across a new one) and the use of the harigata as a surrogate for the male member. Yes, the designs featuring ‘female-female love’ were made by male artists for a (mainly) male audience and therefore had to appeal to the male fantasy. Nowadays it is still the same, the contemporary porn industry provides movies and pictures through the internet and magazines are also aimed at an audience that is primarily dominated by males. Although shunga and contemporary pornography are not the same but that is another discussion. Your observations concerning bathhouse and grooming scenes intended as male fantasies is also my impression. But like homoerotic love, lesbian love is of all times (also in Japan) but who knows maybe we come across a female-female cunnilingus scene in the future. Anyway, the unclarity and mystery surrounding the ‘lesbian’ subject is also part of the appeal of these particular designs and therefore an interesting choice for collecting them. By the way, I will add an article including a translation of the famous Eiri piece I sold to you later this week.

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