kiyonaga shunga art
Marijn Kruijff
3 min

Torii Kiyonaga's Early Oban Masterpiece 'Twelve Holds in the Way of Sex'

3 min

Torii Kiyonaga‘s ‘Twelve Holds in the Way of Sex (Shikido juniban) is definitely one of the big early ukiyo-e oban series. The included tableaus portray gracefully curved shapes highlighted by flowing kimono’s that are beautified with clear patterns, in a limited color scheme.

Kiyonaga’s Compositions

The placing of interior accessories, such as geisha pillows, screens, braziers or mirrors, locates the love-making protagonists and provides perspective. Unlike Katsukawa Shuncho’s series ‘Erotic Prints for the Twelve Months (Koshoku zue juniko, c.1784)‘, architectural aspects do not play a role in Kiyonaga’s compositions. The lovers portrayed are alternately married couples, secret lovers, or geisha with their customers in the Yoshiwara.

Torii Kiyonaga

Fig.1. ‘Client and geisha in a bordello‘ (c.1784) from the series ‘Twelve Holds in the Way of Sex (Shikido juniban)‘ by Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815)


This first scene (Fig.1.) from Kiyonaga’s major work takes place in the pleasure quarter. Not the Yoshiwara, but one of the lower levels of bordello, such as the Futagawa. The man is clearly applauded for the size of his phallus as suggested by the longing gaze of the geisha. She urges him to get on with the action.


Aside from the bedspread, the principal ornament is a harimaze screen – with various paintings mounted on it, that of the peonies being signed “So Shiseki”, a popular Nanga (litarati) artist of the time.

torii kiyonaga

Fig.2. ‘Shinzō with client‘ (c.1784)


This impression (Fig.2.) lacks the accompanying text, which has obviously been removed from the keyblock. From the version of the print with text, we learn that a regular customer of a Yoshiwara brothel forces himself upon a shinzō, frustrated that he has been stood up by the oiran with whom he had an appointment.

Sexual Relations

Yoshiwara etiquette stipulated  that customers of high-ranking brothels were not allowed to have sexual relations with these young trainee courtesans. Yoshiwara expert Cecilia Segawa Seigle describes these playful adolescents as a ‘giggling group of fresh-faced surrogates sent to appease an unrequited client while his courtesan was occupied elsewhere.’


Fig.3. ‘Servant girl and lover‘ (c.1784)

Breaking Waves

A housemaid has an encounter with her lover (Fig.3.). Their conversation reveals that she is the one who encourages him. The white paper that she is wearing is called an ageboshi. These were usually worn to protect the hairstyles. The breaking waves featured on the screen in the back underline their passion.

torii kiyonaga

Fig.4. ‘Townsman and wife‘ (c.1784)  (Picture British Museum)

Pleasures of Private Life

In Fig.4. the action starts passionately, but the location is not that of the obsessive world of the pleasure quarter but a townsman and his wife, enjoying the pleasures of private life.

Every Detail

According to Dr. Richard Lane, ‘The nice balance of heads and black bedding at right renders this one of the masterpieces of the series, despite the slight awkwardness in the depiction of the genitalia: a result of the artist’s striving to show every detail possible.’

Kiyonaga shunga series 12 holds



The genitalia are drawn with the precise expression unique to the painter Kiyonaga Torii.


Man: “Yubobo is something I often say."

“Yubobo” means a warm and firm vagina after a bath, or a vagina with plenty of dew.

Click HERE to check out Torii Kiyonaga’s acclaimed masterpiece and one of the highlights in shunga art….!!


Japanese Erotic Fantasies: Sexual Imagery of the Edo Period‘ by Chris Uhlenbeck et al.
The Complete Ukiyo-e Shunga: “Kiyonaga: Shunga Up Your Sleeve” – Sode no Maki and more‘ (Vol.24) by Richard Lane