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Do You Want to Explore the Secrets of the Japanese Erotic Art of Shunga?

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Almost everyone knows Hokusai‘s iconic The Great Wave and Kuniyoshi‘s robust tattooed Suikoden Heroes or the excellent female close-up portraits (okubi-e) of Utamaro but few will realize that these great Japanese artists also produced shunga, a genre within ukiyo-e that displays the erotic secrets of ancient Japan.

Dream of the fisherman's wife by Hokusai

Fig 1. The shunga masterpiece ‘The Dream of the  Fisherman’s Wife (c.1814)’ from the series ‘Young Pine Saplings (Kinoe no komatsu)‘ by Katsushika Hokusai

This article aims to give a comprehensive introduction to the genre of shunga and will cover all the relevant topics, including its history, its bizarre themes and customs, the most important artists of the genre, its esthetics and at the end we’ll conclude with some collecting tips…

What are the Roots of Shunga?

The fascination for human sexuality is universal and has been a central theme within art from the earliest times. It dates back at least to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and throughout the world, from China and India to South America. Erotic art in Japan is as ancient as Japanese art in general. Clay dolls of naked men and women have been found in excavations dating back to the Jomon period (c.14,500-300 BC). During renovations at the Horyu-ji Temple in Nara they discovered phallic paintings from the eighth century.

This explains the liberal attitude towards sexual imagery that was already developed at an early stage of Japanese culture. It is also expressed in early Japanese literature such as the classic The Tale of Genji that was written by Lady Murasaki (c. 973–c. 1014). Scenes from this tale would often appear in shunga.

Izanagi and Izanami

A sexual component can also be found in the classical Japanese foundation myth, which tells how the deities Izanagi and Izanami (see Fig.2.) created the islands of Japan. As they stood together in the sky, Izanagi shook his jewelled spear (symbolizing masturbation), and the drop that fell from it into the sea (symbolizing the vagina) created the first Japanese island.

Izanagi and Izanami

Fig.2. ‘Izanagi and Izanami‘ (c.1823) from the series ‘Makuro Bunko (literally: Pillow Collection)‘ by Keisai Eisen

Later, influenced by observing wagtail birds mating, Izanagi and Izanami created the other Japanese islands by having sexual intercourse. This legend stands at the base of Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan. Even to this day, Shinto shrines occasionally feature fertility gods in the shape of male or female genitals, and participants in Shinto festivals and processions carry objects of devotion shaped like gigantic male organs through the streets.

In the Edo period (1603-1868), the peak of the production of shunga, and from long before, paintings usually took the form of makimono (scrolls). These kind of scrolls were painted by hand using mineral pigments, sometimes with added gold or silver, applied on paper or silk. The earliest ‘surviving’ example is a painted erotic scroll called ‘The Phallic Contest (Yobutsu kurabe)’.

It was made by Toba Sōjō (1053-1140) and it features ecstatic women judging men endowed with gigantic penises. In the subsequent orgy, the women clearly are more than a match for the men, who eventually crawl away totally exhausted by their demands. Unfortunately, this scroll painting has been lost and is only known in copied form by means of a 19th century painting.

Meaning of the word Shunga

Nowadays, the most common Japanese name for erotic drawings and prints is shunga, or ‘spring pictures’. This is because many shunga prints portray sexual acts taking place in springtime. Therefore a recurring theme within the genre is the portrayal of cherry blossoms: in Japan these can symbolize the short life span of female beauty, which is the reason why pleasure quarters were decorated with them. Spring is also the season of planting and thus connected to fertility.

Less common names for shunga include shunpon (‘Spring books’), enpon or kōshokubon (both translated as ‘amorous books’), mukara-e (‘pillow pictures’), sometimes they were kept in the drawer of a wooden pillow, and higa (‘secret pictures’), which speaks for itself. Another name is abuna-e (‘risky pictures’) that usually applied to images that were more suggestive of sex but did not depict it openly (see Fig.3.).

Sensual liaison by Utagawa Kunisada

Fig.3. ‘Sensual liaison‘ (c.1827) from the series ‘Kamigata koi shugyo‘ by Utagawa Kunisada

Occasionally erotic pictures were also called warai-e (‘laugh pictures’), because many of them had a satirical undertone and were used for amusement and entertainment. Also in the Edo period slang the word ‘laugh’ meant masturbation.

Erotic picture books might also plainly be called e-hon which normally meant ‘picture books’ but written with characters that meant ‘erotic books’. The characters used for shunga may also be pronounced as haruga. This word is borrowed from China and Korea, where erotic art was also very popular.


It is often been addressed that shunga had an educational function. Serving as an instructional guide for young newlywed girls on how to perform in bed and fulfill a man’s desires. This did not apply to the young girls in the pleasure quarters, however, who did not need graphic instructions. They were taught the secrets of sexual pleasure and how to act when alone with their clients by oral transmission from experienced courtesans. Actually, shunga were intended for the people outside the pleasure quarters and were not specifically fashionable within the Yoshiwara.

Courtesans on display by Utagawa Kunisada

Fig.4. ‘Inside the Pleasure Quarters with courtesans on display for male passersby’ (c.1840s). Untitled series. Attributed to Utagawa Kunisada

Video on “The Yoshiwara”:

Shunga as Merchandise

The march of shunga commenced simultaneously with that of the rise of the Tokugawa period around 1600. Edo (nowadays Tokyo) was chosen by the Tokugawa shogunate as the seat of the government. The Tokugawa society was divided in four classes: the noble samurai of the warrior class held the highest rank, followed by the farmer, then the artisan and craftsman and lastly, the contemptible class in the eyes of the samurai, the merchant (shi–nō–kō–shō).

After 1635 all daimyo (feudal lords) compliant to the Shogun were forced to spend every other year in attendance in the capital Edo, seperated from their wives and families. When in Edo, the daimyo spent their money freely. These levels of consumption led to an explosion in construction and production in Edo, attracted an ever-increasing chōnin (merchant and artisan) community. Although many chōnin became extremely wealthy, their place at the bottom of the social hierarchy meant they were excluded from aristocratic society.

For this reason they sought to create their own cultural identity, an arty urban culture of the Kabuki theatre, light-hearted literature, the popular arts and paid sexual entertainment at licensed and unlicensed pleasure quarters. When the economy changed, and rice was replaced by money as a commercial medium, the merchants became the nouveau riche and were keen to show off their newly acquired wealth.

Couple watching erotic scroll by Utagawa Kunisada

Fig.5. ‘Couple watching erotic scroll ‘ (c.1827) from the series ‘Shunka shuto shiki no nagame (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter: Prospects for the Four Seasons)‘ by Utagawa Kunisada

The rise of Edo not only had an impact on entertainment forms like the theatre and the pleasure quarters, it also resulted in an increased demand for literature. This ranged from traditional classic tales, contemporary fiction (kana-zōshi) and the much sought after books on the world of love (kōshoku-bon) which also included erotic illustrations and would eventually develop into the shunga genre. Naturally, these books were highly in demand by chōnin.

How were Shunga distributed?

There’s a lot of evidence that during the Edo period shunga prints and books were distributed. In the autobiography Gyokuen sowa (1902) of the publisher and bookseller Miki Sasuke (1852-1926) he reminisces of the time that shunga circulated with relative freedom throughout most of the Edo period. From time to time there was some censorship on such material but the circulation largely remained the same until the Meiji period (1868-1912). Miki explains: “[…] It was after the Meiji government was established that all this came to a halt and we ended up burning all the blocks we possessed.”

Further evidence of the circulation is that there are many images that depict men and women of all ages and social environments taking pleasure in the reading of erotic books (see Fig.6.) and then the sexual activity provoked by this reading. Also shunga appear as a part of daily life in Edo-period comical senryu poems and can be found in some of the collections accumulated by intellectuals of the Edo period. In other words, shunga spread throughout Edo-period culture, which was only possible because of the easy distribution of this material among potential readers.

Sexual education by Utagawa Kunisada

Fig.6. ‘Sexual education‘ (c.1837) from the series ‘Sumagoto‘ by Utagawa Kunisada

Readers could gain access to shunga through book and print shops. Erotic products formed an important part of their stock and were normally displayed in the shop along with a variety of other products. Another option for shunga lovers were the commercial book-lenders. Compared to bookshops, book-lenders were specifically attractive because they offered a convenient service. First of all, the books were brought by agents directly to the homes of their clients, carrying them in wooden boxes or wrapped in large cloths. So it was very easy for customers to comfortably look through the books in complete privacy. Secondly, the option to borrow books instead of buying them allowed access to expensive richly illustrated shunga, for those who could not afford to buy these editions.

The circulation of shunga was further enhanced through ‘human networks’. They were often used as gifts for the upper class, and also as souvenirs of Edo. Publisher-booksellers freely produced shunga and facilitated their distribution by means of countrywide catalogues until the genre was banned in 1722. By the mid-eighteenth century it had resumed and continued with only minor interruptions to the end of the Edo period in 1868. Because the insatiable appetite for erotic books did not stop the booksellers were prepared to risk official displeasure in order to make a nice profit.

But who were these designers responsible for the appealing erotic illustrations in these popular shunga books and prints? In the next part we’ll explore this question…

Who are the most important Shunga artists?

The list of artists below is in a chronological order:

The Kanbun Master (act. c.1660 - 1673)

The label ‘Kanbun Master’ was first coined by the American critic Richard Lane after he found a series of works which spanned the years 1660 to 1673 and that was distinct from that of Hishikawa Moronobu (his mentor was most probably the Kanbun Master). The specific pictorial and graphic style of these unsigned pieces was clearly attributable to a single artist. Although it is also possible that what lies behind this name is in fact a studio of artists, all working in a stylistically constant style.

Hishikawa Moronobu (1618 - 1694)

Generally considered the first true artist of ukiyo-e and founder of the art of the Floating World. Although he was not the first figure , none of the others possessed his distinguishing style and productivity.  He added a smooth and powerful flow to his drawings which carry an air of total assurance. His most notable work was produced in the 1680s. While the majority of his shunga is to be found in the illustrated books, some of the most spectacular designs are seen among the series of single-sheet prints.

Sugimura Jihei (c.1680s - 1705)

A chief rival of Moronobu and an independent Edo-based artist. Very little is known about Sugimura Jihei except that he was a cousin of one of the celebrated forty-seven ronin (masterless samurai). Like Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) in Europe he was almost totally forgotten for over two centuries. This was mainly because his work was unsigned and at first sight very close to that of Moronobu. Sugimura was a specialist in the erotic. His output was tiny because he was a perfectionist, who would rather stick to what he knew he could do and do it superbly.

Young boy picks the ear of an older manby Ishikawa Toyonobu

Fig.7. ‘Young boy picks the ear of an older man‘ attrib. to Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711-1785). Date: c.1730-40

Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750)

He is by far considered the greatest ukiyo-e artist coming from the Kamigata area (Kyoto and Osaka). His extraordinary mastery in portraying the female figure meant that he was in great demand for shunga illustrations. Sukenobu’s both erotic and non-erotic works expose his stylistic qualities. Into his figures, particularly those of women, he infused a refinement of features, and a sense of grandeur in the expressions and gestures.  He influenced all the great ukiyo-e masters of later generations from Harunobu to Utamaro, from Okumura Masanobu to Chobunsai Eishi down to the later phases of the work by Hokusai.

Video on Sukenobu:

Torii Kiyonobu (1664-1729)

Founder of the important Torii school and most probably the son of Torii Kiyomoto, a kabuki actor from Osaka who was specialized in female roles. Kiyonobu’s earlier works are believed to have been book illustrations and theatre playbills (kanban), which remained the most popular activity at the school he founded. His contributions to shunga are the great albums (in both oban and aiban formats) which he produced in the decade following 1700. In these series of prints he demonstrates a voluptuous urgency which matches, and occasionally even surpasses Sugimura. Kiyonobu introduced a fullness of face and a heavy fleshiness of body into his drawing which is not to everyone’s taste.

Intimate couple and servant by Torii Kiyonobu

Fig.8. ‘Intimate couple and servant‘, c.1690s. Attributed to Torii Kiyonobu (c.1664–1729)

Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764)

Started as a pupil of the Torii school at an early age. He was already designing prints at the age of fifteen and publishing shunga by the age of seventeen – and continued to the end of his life. Masanobu was also a versatile entrepreneur who published and distributed prints and illustrated books. He used specific formats: very large prints (o-oban), which served as hanging paintings (kakemono), but also long and narrow ones (tanzaku). Masanobu’s shunga masterpiece [Mountain of Dyed Colours] Patterns of the Bedrooms and was made around 1740.

Tsukioka Settei (1710-1786)

An artist who lived and worked mainly in Osaka. Together with Sukenobu he is considered to be the leading artist of the Floating World in Kamigata, a region that included Kyoto and Osaka. Settei had a classical training at the Kano school and was partly influenced by Moronobu’s style. His own style moved toward a less forceful expression than that of the earlier Edo masters. Settei’s shunga were famous in their own day. Some were in great demand as magical panacea against various disasters. But they are now hard to find.

Orgy scene by Tsukioka Settei

‘Orgy scene‘ (c.1760s) by Tsukioka Settei

Terasawa Masatsugu (?-1790)

An obscure and talented Osaka artist who displayed an undulating style characterized by rounded lines and flowing textiles. It represents a style in Edo books that preceded Suzuki Harunobu and Isoda Koryusai. A great book series of Masatsugu is the rare Mr. Pussy-buyer’s Erotic Treasures (c.1760).

Painting on silk by an Unknown Master

Fig.9. ‘Through the door’ Date: c.1730-‘ 40. Painting on silk by an Unknown Primitive Master

Isoda Koryusai (1735-1790)

The supreme student of Harunobu who excelled in depicting flowers and animals in the hashira-e (pillar) format but also shined in the shunga genre to which he contributed a lot both in the chuban format but also in the larger oban-sized prints. Koryusai was also one of the first to portray exaggerated genitalia. His famous series are ‘The Prosperous Flowers of the Fashionable Twelve Seasons’ (c.1773), ‘Sensual Colours, a Phoenix Released in the Field’ (c.1775)’and ‘Twelve Holds of Love‘ (c.1775-77).

Couple and Peeking Boy by Isoda Koryusai

Fig.10. ‘Couple and Peeking Boy (c.1775)’ from the series ‘Sensual Colors, Phoenix Free in a Field’ (Enshoku Ho Ya Ho) by Isoda Koryusai

Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-1770)

Was a highly influential artist and an important pioneer. He introduced the multi-colour printing technique (before him all prints were hand-colored) and together with his pupil Koryusai he gave a new impulse to the esthetics of the woodblock print and especially to shunga. Well-known series by him are ‘The Fashionable Lusty Maneemon’ (c.1770), ‘Eight Fashionable Views of Edo‘ (c.1769) and ‘Eight Fashionable Parlour Views‘ (c.1768).

Old and young couple by Suzuki Harunobu.

Fig.11. ‘Old and young couple‘ from the series ‘The Fashionable Lusty Maneemon (c.1770)’ by Suzuki Harunobu.

Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815)

One of the giants of the art of ukiyo-e. Kiyonaga was mainly a portrayer of the female figure (preferably standing) but in the field of shunga, he is known for his exceptional oban series Twelve Holds in the Way of Sex, c.1784 and his masterpiece The Sleeve Scroll (Sode no maki), 1785. The latter is unique in the erotic genre because of the long narrow hashira-e (pillar) format.

Kiyonaga’s shunga convey a sensitivity often absent in his non-shunga, which have often been criticized as stiff and formal in their portrayal of women. He seems to have produced no prints after 1790, perhaps because of the demands on him once he became the head of the Torii school in the later 1780s.

Katsukawa Shunsö (1726-1792)

One of the leading artists of ukiyo-e and the founder and teacher of the Katsukawa school who educated and formed many of the most prominent names within ukiyo-e (Shun’ei, Shunko, Shunchō and the great Hokusai). Shunshō was particularly notable as a designer of actor prints). His early erotic works were in the manner of Harunobu. Later he followed Koryusai’s example in pursuing a greater boldness and physicality. Many of his shunga are to be found in illustrated books.

Katsukawa Shunchö (act. c.1780s-early 1800s)

Biographical information on Shunchō is sparse. He most probably had a falling out with his master Shunsho around 1784 and sought refuge with the artist Kubo Shunman (1757-1820). His work is reminiscent to that of Utamaro and Kiyonaga but he definitely had his own approach. His style tends to be gentle, and in his shunga prints he, like Kiyonaga, conveys a sense that the women too are enjoying the sexual encounter. The author Tom Evans who was a big fan of Shunchō wrote: “Shunchō’s unique talent can be summarized as the ability to depict feelings of physical passion with the grace of a lyrical poet.”

Maiden Dreaming of Attack by Devils by Katsukawa Shuncho

Fig.12. ‘Maiden Dreaming of Attack by Devils‘ from the series ‘Takara bako (A Female Treasure)‘ by Katsukawa Shuncho

Kitao Masanobu (1761-1816)

Santo Kyoden was the original name of this artist. He was one of the most interesting figures in Edo´s middle-class bohemian culture of the late eighteenth century. He was a man of the world in every sense. Distinguished as a writer, a painter, a calligrapher and a poet, but he was also a connoiseur and moved with equal ease and casualness among the Yoshiwara prostitutes (two of whom he married) as among the intellectual elite. Masanobu created very few prints but all of them of exceptional quality. His style was fluid and often humorous. A sense of irony was also present in his erotic images.

Deceived husband by Kitao Masanobu

Fig.13. ‘Deceived husband‘ c.1785. Designed by Kitao Masanobu

Chobunsai Eishi (1756-1829)

Eishi was of high-ranking samurai birth. He was a professional rival of Utamaro and were influenced by each other. Utamaro adopted Eishi´s ethereal, exaggeratedly slender and elegant style of portraying women. His major contribution to shunga can be found in his excellent scroll paintings )some nice examples were on display during the shunga exhibition at the British Museum in 2013/2014). These were lavishly executed paintings, using high-quality pigments, gold and gold-leaf, that show sexual couplings displayed in colorful settings and show Eishi´s fantastic eye for detail.

Chökyösai Eiri (act. c.1789-1801)

Very little is known about Eiri. He was active in the last decade of the eighteenth century. Together with Chōkōsai Eisho (c.1790-1800) he was one of Eishi’s most famous students. Although he was a pupil of Eishi he was heavily influenced by Utamaro and specialized in designs of female beauties (bijinga). His most famous prints are the male portraits of two Edo celebrities: the bon vivant and colleague Kitao Masanobu and the head of the Tomimoto school of music and dance, Tomimoto Bu-zendayu.

His most celebrated work in the shunga genre is ‘Models of Calligraphy (Fumi no kiyogaki)’, released for the New Year in 1801. The album is inspired on Utamaro’s masterpiece ‘Poem of the Pillow (c.1788)’ but really stands on his own. One of the masterpieces of the set is the opening image (see Fig.16.) showing a Dutchman and a Japanese courtesan making love, framed by a window overlooking the garden. The design fully expresses the violent contrast between the elegant image of the youthful Japanese woman and the repelllent Dutchman – a ‘Southern barbarian’, as mentioned in the text. In Utamaro’s ‘Poem of the Pillow‘ the album ends with a design of a monstrous Dutch couple, depicted clinging to each other in a ludricous sexual embrace.

Dutchman with Japanese Courtesan by Chokyosai Eiri.

Fig.16. ‘Dutchman with Japanese Courtesan‘ from the series ‘Models of Calligraphy (1801)’ by Chokyosai Eiri.

Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1867)

izan was born in Edo in 1787 on the ninth day of the ninth month. His first teacher was his father Kikugawa Eiji. He was a painter himself but he also was a creator of fans and artificial flowers. This had a major impact on Eizan’s pictiorial style in shunga which were very colorful and full of flower patterns. He also studied with Suzuki Nanrei (1775-1844), an artisan of the realistic Shijo school. Through Totoya Hokkei (1780-1850) he was also influenced by Hokusai, who was his pupil.

Later Eizan founded the Kikugawa school where he trained the extraordinary artist Keisai Eisen. He had a great visual insight and sense of colour and he was a master in portraying the female figure. On a commercial level he learned a lot from his friend Toyokuni who was very successful exploiting his influential Utagawa school. A famous shunga series by him in the oban format is the ‘Spring Pleasures (Haro no raku)‘ -series from c.1815.

Kimono patterns by Kikugawa Eizan

Fig.16. ‘Kimono patterns (c.1815)’ from the series: ‘Haru no raku’ (Spring Pictures)‘, by Kikugawa Eizan

Keisai Eisen ((1790-1848)

Eisen had a distinguished artistic background. His father was a prominent calligrapher and poet. and so he got in touch with the arts from an early age. Eisen’s artistic career began towards the end of the 1810s. Like many painters and authors of his time he used various names according to the genre in which he was working. In the case of erotic art, his most used signatures were Insai 0r Insai Hakusui.

Besides designing prints and paintings he also was a devoted writer of novels, plays, history books, legends and biographies. He also wrote ‘Ukiyo-e ruiko‘, which is the most extensive collection of biographies of ukiyo-e artists. He excelled in shunga because he was a superb portraitist of the female figure. His women were vigorous and physically more realistic and solid. According to Richard Lane Eisen’s masterpiece in the shunga genre is the aiban series Passion in the Snows of Spring (Haru no usuyuki) from 1822 (see Fig. .). Despite Eisen’s esthetic talent he was not very successful and died a poor man.

Fig.19. ‘The Distant Past of the Tenpyõ Era (Tenpyõ hõji no mukashi)‘ from the series: ‘ A Light Spring Snow (Haru no usuyuki)‘
, c.1822. By Keisai Eisen

Yanagawa Shigenobu (1787-1832)

Hokusai's most prominent pupil, Totoya Hokkei who was deeply impressed by Shigenobu’s skillful illustrations. The relationship between Hokusai and Shigenobu did not proceed smoothly and he even got expelled as Hokusai’s disciple. Although he later married Hokusai’s eldest daughter.

Shigenobu produced relatively few works in general but he enriched the shunga genre with a masterpiece oban series that is unmatched in brutality and boldness. The title of this unrelenting work is ‘Willow Storm (Yanagi no arashi)‘ and was published in the late 1820s (see Fig.20.). The album is extraordinary for its eccentric designs and the sense of belligerent urgency that speaks through the compositions. There seems to be very little tenderness in the sexual encounters. Shigenobu used a more loving approach to erotic encounters in ‘The Floating Bridge of Heaven (Ama no ukibashi)’

Chinese couple by Yanagawa Shigenobu

Fig.20. ‘Chinese couple (late 1820s)’ from the series: ‘ Willow Storm (Yanagi no Arashi’). Designed by Yanagawa Shigenobu

Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825

Son of an important carver of dolls in Edo. Toyokuni exhibited a gift for painting from a very early age. He served his education at the studio of Utagawa Toyoharu (1735-1814), who was the founder of the dominating Utagawa school. From Totoharu he assumed his professional surname and the first character, Toyo, that makes up his name. Toyokuni worked mainly in the kabuki-e (actor print) and he was, together with Toshusai Sharaku (act.c.1794-1795), the supreme master of the genre.

His work in the genre of shunga is scant but excelled when he did. Two nice examples are his book series ‘Picture Book: Mirror of the Vagina (Ehon kaichu kagami)’, published in c.1823, and the groundbreaking ‘Call of Geese Meeting at Night (Ōyogari no koe)’,published in c.1822. The latter introduced a more shocking approach to the genre as displayed in the scene with a gravedigger making love to a corpse (see picture below!).

Gravedigger and corpse by Utagawa Toyokuni

Fig.21. ‘Gravedigger and corpse‘ (c.1822) from the series ‘Call of Geese Meeting at Night‘. Designed by Utagawa Toyokuni

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)

Without a doubt the most prolific of all Floating World artists. He worked in virtually all genres (except for the landscape genre) and was the most successful of all 19th Century ukiyo-e masters. Educated by Toyokuni, of whom he adopted his pseudonym, but from whose influence he soon freed himself to create his own personal style.  Kunisada was not only popular among the public but also with his principals and clients. These clients were often influential and rich merchants who offered him interesting assignments. Shunga book series such as ‘Sho-utsushi Aioi Genji (A True-life Devoted Genji)‘ published in 1851 and ‘Genji of the East, Charm of Flowers and Birds (Kachõ yojõ Azuma Genji), c.1837 (see also Fig.22.) were clearly consignments from the affluent elite.

In Kunisada’s shunga work there’s a lot attention to details and accessoires surrounding the scenes. The clothing, the hairstyles of the human figures the sumptuous screens and sliding doors, the plates of food and brightly coloured quilts, all add to an ensemble rich in minutely rendered details.

Masturbating woman by Utagawa Kunisada

Fig.22. ‘Masturbating woman‘. Series:’Genji of the East, Charm of Flowers and Birds (Kachõ yojõ Azuma Genji), c.1837. Utagawa Kunisada.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)

Most famous for his collection of the portraits of the Suikoden Heroes, the Chinese classical tale that recounts the adventures of 108 heroic bandits in medieval China. Kuniyoshi depicted the bandits one by one with a multitude of details. He even portrayed their intricate tatoos that caused a major trend among the Edo population. This trend has survived to this day, and even has spread far beyond Japan. The Suikoden series became very popular and increased the demand for prints of warriors.

The power and eloquence of Kuniyoshi’s figures are revealed even more clearly in his shunga images. His strong and original style emerges both in his loose sheet prints and in books such as ‘Edo Brocades, Eastern Library (Edo nishiki, azuma bunko)‘ which was published c. 1838. The images portrayed in half-length are very effective and have a strong physical presence. They are large and stand out against a blue, green en sometimes purple background with no added text (see Fig.23).

Wet fingers by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Fig.23. ‘Wet fingers‘ (c.1838) from the series ‘Edo nishiki-e, azuma bunko (Edo Brocades, The Eastern Library)’ by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Kawanebe Kyosai (1831-1889)

Near the end of the nineteenth century, during the Meiji period, the shunga genre was in decline. Major ukiyo-e artists such as Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) only designed a few erotic book illustrations, and Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) even designed no shunga at all. The excellent exception was the prodigiously gifted artist, Kawanabe Kyosai.

He produced numerous erotic prints and paintings that were fuelled by his abundantly fertile imagination (and a couple of glasses of sake!) and habitually comic genius. Yet Kyosai‘s art remained effectively founded in traditional techniques and subject matter. He maintained the great warai-e (‘laughter picture’) tradition of shunga and who enthusiastically produced erotic works into the new Meiji era (1868-1912).

A wonderful example of his comic genius can be seen in the shunga sketches he made during painting parties (shogakai). One of these is a famous scroll triptych he created in which the third scroll features a couple making love from behind. Instead of representing the genitalia in any great detail, however, Kyosai adds a comical touch with a cat playing with the man’s testicles. These later paintings (c.1880s) are portrayed with a wonderful spontaneity and a rapid touch that is full of movement. This is contrast with his earlier erotic prints that were full of intricate detail (see Fig.24.!).

Meiji restoration parody by Kawanabe Kyosai

Fig.24. ‘Meiji restoration parody‘ (c.1867) from the series ‘Kiyomizu tsuya monogatari (Tale of a Night in Kiyomizu)‘ by Kawanabe Kyosai

Tomioka Eisen (1864-1905)

Was a ukiyo-e artist who was active around the the late 1880s. He was a student of Kobayashi Eitaku and mainly designed illustrations for newspapers and magazines. His specialty were pictures of beauties, popular customs and warriors and his best-known work in shunga is ‘Poetic Intercourse (Yakumo no chirigi)‘, published c.1899.

Eisen’s style was strongly influenced by Western realism and has little in common with the work of traditional ukiyo-e studios like the Utagawa. The quality of printing in ‘Poetic Intercourse’ is superb. It seems to have been printed in various editions, with and without a table of contents and colophon.

Masturbating woman by Tomioka Eisen

‘Masturbating woman‘ (c.1897-1899) from the series ‘Yakumo no chigiri (Poetic Interlude)’ by Tomioka Eisen

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)

This legendary Meiji artist most probably did not design for the shunga genre (although they are studying an album of ten erotic paintings that they discovered recently which bears a seal reading ‘Tsukioka shi‘), but his contribution to the erotic art can be found in his kakemono-e (scroll print) masterpiece ‘Picture of the Lonely House on Adachi Moor (Oshû Adachigahara hitotsuya no zu)‘ from c.1885, which heavily influenced the work of the important kinbaku master Ito Seiu (1882-1961).

Nobuyoshi Araki (1940)

One of the most influential contemporary Japanese artists of his time who is strongly inspired by the shunga genre and Japanese erotic art in general. Eroticism is an essential element of his photography in which he juxtaposes components of contemporary Japanse culture and traditional kinbaku (bondage) scenes, often related to sadomasochism, and the ancient shunga. His models often wear the traditional Japanese kimono. His art, is like shunga, unjustly perceived by some as closer to pornography than to erotic art, but his intimate carefully staged images are unique.

What kind of themes were treated in Shunga?

There is probably no subject found in ukiyo-e that does not appear in shunga. What´s so distinguishing about shunga is that it expresses the different aspects of it, mostly in the form of parody. Below the most common themes within the genre will be discussed.


Voyeurism is often represented through images in the background of people spying. Through the washi walls and doors (shoji) the sounds made by intimate couples could be overheard, while their shadows revealed their movements. They could also be spied on by peeping through a tiny slit or hole (which recalls the old Japanese saying ‘the walls have ears, the shoji have eyes’ (Kabe ni mimi ga aru, shoji ni me ga aru).

Young Couple and peeking girl by Suzuki Harunobu

Fig.25. ‘Young Couple and peeking girl‘ (c.1760s) from the series ‘Senrikyu‘ by Suzuki Harunobu

The voyeurs actually represent us, the viewer, who, while looking at the shunga, are secretly watching the lovers. In many cases, close inspection of a print, will reveal an eye peeking through the door. This enhances the viewer’s imagination to try to guess who it belongs

to, and what he or she is doing.

The mirror is also a popular motif and often used as a peeking device. Mirrors can provide another angle for obeserving couples and their intimate members. Sometimes the sexual act in bwas hidden from the direct look of the beholder but was visible by its reflection in a mirror. The mirror’s position if often not related to what we see in it, but it will be the focus of attention of the image. This opens a window on to a meaningful aspect: either the beauty of the couple’s faces or to emphasize their sexual organs.


Rapists are often depicted as Yakuza or brigands, discernible by their black clothes and handkerchiefs, or as highway bandits, sometimes stealing the clothes of a woman. Shunga shows all sorts of men as perpetrators, who sometimes also get involved in a gang rape. Importantly. most rapists are portrayed as having physically repugnant peculiarities, such as an unusual amount of body hair, or unshaven or disfigured faces.

Rapists sometimes approach women while they are asleeep, hoping they will not wake up. From time to time a woman tries to defend herself, or another woman, by attacking the rapist. There are also some portrayals of women forcing themselves on a man (mostly a youth), sometimes even tying them up, though the accompanying text makes clear that such acts are committed only by desperate and undesirable women.

Rape scene by Tomioka Eisen

Fig.27. ‘Rape scene‘ (c.1896) from the series ‘Yakumo no chigiri ( Poetic Intercourse )‘ by Tomioka Eisen

Deities, Demons, Ghosts & Animals

Motivated by Confucian and Daoist beliefs, imported from China, the Japanese were taught that sex is important for both physical and mental health. From the Heian era, it seems most shunga scrolls were owned by the aristocracy and temples. This is perhaps the reason why gods appear frequently, and not to mention the creators of the Japanese islands, Izanami and Izanagi.

In addition, there are The Seven Gods of Fortune (Shichi fukujin), who were frequently portrayed taking part in orgies. The same applies to Buddhist angels (tenshi/tenyo), who have intercourse with each other or with mortals. Another beloved figure was the demon Tengu, who is sometimes shown having sexual relations with a woman, usually using his long nose for her pleasure. Daruma, the founder of Buddhism was also a very popular subject (mostly in a humorous context) within shunga.

The nose of Daruma (Asahina and a young foreign boy) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi’

Fig.28. ‘The nose of Daruma (Asahina and a young foreign boy)‘, c.1830. By Utagawa Kuniyoshi’

Demons (oni) were depicted having sex with, or raping, women or men. Raijin, the god of thunder, also appeared in scenes involving

rape. It was said that women should not bathe during thunderstorms, because the god might violate them.

There was a widespread popular belief in ghosts, and so they appear in many prints, including shunga, with ghosts raping men or women, usually in dark places or cemeteries, as well as rokurokubi ghosts.  They live like normal people during daytime, but at night can stretch their necks to an enormous length, and are known for their habit of disturbing humans and their love of drinking oil.

Although the majority of prints in this sub-genre show dark settings, such as a ghost emerging from a male organ, but there are also the humorous ghost images of the mythical character Minamoto no Yorimasa who is transposed from a painting into a physical body and making love to a female deity, or ghosts appearing in the shape of a variety of different animals.

Shunga‘s featuring animals are divided roughly in two categories namely the ones that are portrayed in fantasy scenes and those featured in realistic images. The animals depicted in the imaginative pictures include the rape of women in (or at) the sea (usually abolone divers) by collosal octopuses or kappa (water demons), or a half-octopus, half-human monster forcing himself on a fisherman’s wife.

Fox Spirit by Utagawa Kunisada

Fig.29. ‘Fox Spirit‘ (c.1850) from the series ‘Shunshoku Tamazoroi (An Assortment of Pleasure in Spring)‘. Designed by Utagawa Kunisada

Foxes (kitsune) mutate themselves (see Fig.29.) into male or (more usually) female human form to trick people into having sex or to try to obtain something from them in return for sex. They were shown either as foxes dressed as humans or as humans with tails. In some toy prints (shikake-e), what appears to be a woman is revealed as a fox when a flap is lifted. Sometimes a priest performs rituals to prevent a fox deceiving a woman into having sex.

Animals portrayed in real settings in shunga are dogs, foxes, cats, monkeys, deer, camels, turtles and mice, who copulate with each other, or participate or watch the intimate human couples. Perhaps the purpose was to compare the two and convey the idea that humans are also animals, simply acting as nature intends.

Larger animals are also represented, including oxen looking on with interest while humans make love, or horses having erections while observing a couple in action. Sexual acts between humans and animals are also shown, but mainly in the form of parody. Usually one human (either man or woman) has sex with a single animal, typically a dog or a horse but also an exotic animal such as a camel.. ..

Canine Hero Yatsufuta by Utagawa Kunisada

Fig.30. ‘Canine Hero Yatsufuta‘ (c.1837). Series: ‘Koi no yatsufuji (Eight Dog Heroes)’. Utagawa Kunisada

Most of such portrayals of sex with animals were intended as lighthearted and comical, sometimes very noticeably so, as when a horse dressed in a kimono is cleaning himself licking his penis after making love to a woman.

Amusing or not, it is difficult to believe that the majority of people looking at shunga featuring ghosts, animals or monsters, would experience any lust or sexual arousal.


Homosexuality has appeared in Japanese art within the shunga genre from the Heian era (late 8th Century). It is rumoured that homosexuality was imported from China by the Buddhist priest Kukai (774-835). The most compelling aspect of known Edo-period portrayals of homosexual sex is the clear differentiation of the partners in terms of their ages. The partners’ respective ages determined their sexual roles. This was called ‘the way of youth’ (shudo or wakashudo). The receptive partner (wakashu), perpetually a pre-pubescent or pubescent boy or an adolescent male, could assume no role other than submission to anal penetration by the senior partner (nenja).

These young boys were often young male prostitutes called yaro, although they had many other names such as nanshoku (‘male colours’) or kagema (‘hidden room’). Their services could be hired in brothels that were called ‘houses of children’ (kodomo-ya).

Temple page and monk by Kitagawa Utamaro

Fig.31. ‘Temple page and monk‘ (c.1803) From an untitled series published in the rare half-size oban format. Designed by Kitagawa Utamaro

Male homosexuality featured in shunga mainly does not follow the present-day understanding of homosexuality. That is a sexual relationship in which both men are by nature attracted to each other. But what we usually see in shunga is that one party enjoys the act, while the other, usually a younger male, gives his body out of respect or duty (giri), or for money. The older male will never hire boys to penetrate him.

Sometimes shunga images featuring homosexual activity were intended to express criticism on behaviour of a different kind. For instance, when a samurai is shown forcing himself on a farmer, the clear implication is to criticize samurai exploitation of farmers and other lower classes. Often homorerotic scenes feature priests and Buddhist monks who make love to their male najimi (regular partner). A recurring theme within this sub-genre is that of the young male making love to a girl or woman while a senior partner penetrates him.

Westerners (Foreigners)

Since the first Portuguese ship arrived in 1543 the curiosity of the Japanese about these foreigners was intense. Although it was not until the 1630s when Dutch merchants were allowed to enter the mainland that they could observe them more closely. But it was not until the eighteenth century, though still in restricted areas only (Maruyama and Dejima), that the Japanese and a very few Europeans were allowed to intermingle.

The first shunga scenes that were created of these barbaric Westerners were inspired on the relationships between Deijima factory men and Japanese women. This resulted in humorous erotic scenes and fanciful commentaries in the illustrated books and prints dating from the 1750s to the early nineteenth by artists such as Tsukioka Settei, Shiba Kokan, Hosoda Esihi, Kitagawa Utamaro and Katsushika Hokusai.

Video on shunga featuring Westerners:

Their shunga‘s showed  Europeans bragging about aphrodisiacs and engaged in intercourse. Other compositions mirror sexual habits and activities such as the collection of vaginal fluids (see also Fig.) for medicinal use (this was a Chinese belief and sometimes wrongfully portrayed as of Western origin), to extend life and to maintain erections. A famous image (discussed in more detail in the Eiri biography above) that comes from the album ‘Models of Calligraphy’ (see Fig.16.),, designed by Chokyosai Eiri shows a prostitute getting intimate with a Dutchman (also referred to as the ‘Dutch Captain’). Though the setting is imagined, such a scene could very well have happened.

In some cases shunga prints that show Japanese couples, foreign influences are sometimes discernible, such as the presence of watches, telescopes, Chinese chairs, cameo hairpins, or foreign ships (vessels) in the background and even a rug with a design imitating roman characters.

When, in 1859, the ports of Japan were completely opened to the West, prints depicting westerners (Yokohama-e) were high in demand. For a short period (mainly 1860–61) the production of these kind of prints was enormous but when the curiosity was satisfied the demand declined rapidly. Nowadays these kind of prints are relatively rare.

Click here for an article that features 10 nice examples of shunga that  portray Westerners! I recently soldd a shunga from the Meiji era that features a very rare image of a Western woman making love to a Japanese soldier while being watched by a very surprised subordinate.

Foreigner with a Japanese woman by Kitagawa Utamaro

Fig.34.  ‘Foreigner with a Japanese woman (c.1800)’ from an unknown series by Kitagawa Utamaro

Mosquito netting

The use of mosquito-netting in shunga had not only a compositional purpose (conjuring up a seperate world) but it was also a way for the artist to convey the summer season to the image. The rendering of the mosquito net is a stunning example of nishiki-e printing techniques, in which vertical and horizontal green lines were superimposed in two printing stages to represent the weave of the hempen net, over which  a further screen of faint green was applied. The seafloor-like atmosphere of the interior of the mosquito net is thus superbly conveyed. Carving the weave of the mosquito net presented such a challenge that most shunga on this theme depict the lovers outside the raised net.

Lovers and Sleeping Husband by Utagawa Kunisada

Fig.35. Series: ‘Shiki no sugatami (Viewing Forms in the Four Seasons)‘, c.1842. Title: ‘Lovers and Sleeping Husband‘ By Utagawa Kunisada

What are the specific aestethics of Shunga?

To fully appreciate shunga, it is important to remember that they were designed from a male perspective and consequently that the depictions of women were intended for a male audience.

Shunga have always held a special position because their erotic subject-matter requires the artist to convey the complexities of sexual intimacy. They are a field of ukiyo-e rich in research potential, as no other genre provides the same insight into the abilities of an individual artist, or in the words of Jack Hillier: ‘Shunga often elicited works of art’.

The ratio between shunga imagery derived from the Yoshiwara and shunga rooted in scenes fro daily life is hard to measure. This probably has something to do that the setting for shunga shifted over time. Everyday scenes may have predominated the period from 1765 to 1780, that is, sometime during the careers of Harunobu and Koryusai. Nevertheless, in numerous nineteenth-century shunga book illustrations by Eisen, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, the settings were frequently brothels and houses of assignation.

The exaggerates genitalia

It was Koryusai in the late 1770s who re-introduced the ōban format in shunga, and who also set the trend of exaggerating the portrayed genitalia. This greater emphasis on male and female genitalia had an aestethic point of departure. This way, the enlarged genitals would dominate the composition and immediately drew the viewer’s attention.

Aristocratic couple by  Tomioka Eisen

Fig.36. ‘Aristocratic couple‘ (c.1890s) from an untitled series attributed to Tomioka Eisen

Dutch ukiyo-e expert Uhlenbeck says: “The strong lines used to delineate genitalia create a dynamism that would otherwise be absent” and art historian Timon Screech has suggested that anatomical/gender differentiation is lacking in shunga. Rather, clothes distinguish men from women and this is why complete nudity is relatively rare in shunga. Furthermore, the enlarged sexual organs provide the ultimate method to disitinguish men from women. The lack of gender-specific anatomy in prints compels the artist to focus on genitalia and clothing.


Japanese art authority Tanaka Yuko makes the further observation that shunga are ‘as a kingdom of cloth’. During the first two decades of the nineteenth century the artists Eizan and Eisen excelled in a style of shunga in which sexual activity is almost totally overshadowed by mounds of cloth. The gorgeous kimono patterns and the sumptuous fabrics indicate an opulence not encountered in shunga before this time.

Tanaka points out that perhaps this accent on fabrics had to do with links between ukiyo-e printmakers, drapers and textile designers. It would be interesting to know if drapery houses also sponsored shunga prints. Textiles thus set the ‘erotic’ stage and accentuate the compositional focal point – male and female genitalia.

Collecting tips

During the Edo period alone, around 3,000 shunga books were created, plus a vast number of paintings, prints of various sizes (usually in sets of twelve), and more. It is almost impossible to collect everything, both because of the quantity and because of the rareness of items and their increasing prices. Therefore, my first advice to the shunga collector is to concentrate on a specific niche close to his/her heart: a specific artist, a specific period of time or a specific subject.

Due to age and the fragility of the washi paper (handmade from natural fibres) on which shunga works were printed, many suffer from the ravages of time and mistreatment, with damage such as burns, missing ages, worm holes, water stains, and colour bleeding due to moisture and humidity. Many have torn or worn lower corners as a result of excessive age turning. Some have been mounted on various later backings, filled-in with colours, or written over by successive owners.

The best method of storing your prints is to keep them between sheets of washi paper in hard-cover albums. If you would like to display them, place them on washi paper before framing, to avoid acidity, and keep them away from intense light, especially sunlight, which will cause the colors to fade.

Shunga prices have risen consistently in the last few years and, given the gradual increase in freedom relating to the subject in Japan, will probably continue to increase. By taking good care of your collection, you will be enhancing its value and, more importantly, you will be helping preserve an important part of the art and history of Japan and the world.

We hope you enjoyed the article and wish you lots of fun learning about and collecting shunga…!

Sources:  ‘Japanese Erotic Fantasies’ by C. Uhlenbeck, ”Shunga, the Art of Love in Japan by Tom and Mary Evans, ‘Japanese Erotic Art, the Hidden World of Shunga‘ by Ofer Shagan, ‘Poem of the Pillow and Other Stories‘ by Gian Carlo Calza, ‘Japanese Erotic Fantasies, Shunga by Harunobu and Koryusai‘by Inge Klompmakers, ‘Shunga, Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art‘ by Timothy Clark, C. Andrew Gerstle and more, ‘Shunga, Stages of Desire‘ by Honolulu Museum of Art, ‘The Complete Ukiyo-e Shunga‘ (Vol. 2,4,5,7,12,14,15,16 and 18) by Hayashi Yoshikazu and Richard Lane.

Do you think shunga should be considered as an artform…or do you think shunga is similar to pornography?

Who are your favorite artists /and or subjects in shunga? Let us know your thoughts!

Do you have any inquiries/requests on specific subjects we should cover in future articles?

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