Japanese Art and Shunga Prints: Art or Pornography?

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Japanese Shunga Prints – Art or Pornography?

By toshidama


It is the fashion, especially among connoisseurs, to make distinctions between erotica and pornography. However, it seems to me disingenuous to describe some images as pornographic and others as erotic when the distinction is only contextual or at least subjective.

In the field of Japanese art, shunga is the genre description for prints whose subjects are the explicit depiction of sex. For obvious reasons shunga prints are collectable, often expensive and sell well. Very few are of any great artistic merit; for this reason – the appeal lying in the subject matter and not the rendering of the subject – I think that it is fair to say that they fall mainly into the field of pornography. Having said that, they remain fascinating, often alarming and in some ways, partly because of their frank unfamiliarity, very lovely objects.

The tradition begins properly in the early eighteenth century with pictures of copulating couples in rarefied surroundings. The environs are rich, the dress often lavish and the depictions graphic and exaggerated, the focus of the pictures remaining firmly on the often outlandish genitalia of the participants. Shunga is a late word meaning ‘spring pictures.’ Residents of Edo would have known these images as ‘Pillow Pictures’ (makura-e) and ‘Laughing Pictures’ (warai-e, or masturbation pictures). Officially they were sometimes known as ‘Dangerous Pictures’ (abuna-e). There can be little doubt that the use of these images was as an aid to masturbation, for both men and women. This blunt interpretation is avoided by art historians but should nevertheless be borne in mind when discussing the genre.


Production in the late eighteenth century was often deluxe and there is evidence that the consumption ofshunga was intended primarily for the wealthy. As we move towards the nineteenth century however, and the woodblock printing industry and number of artists increased dramatically, so too did the production of pornography and there is a clear deterioration in the sophistication of the depictions and in the quality of the product. It should be remembered that all the great artists of the nineteenth century produced large quantities of shunga. Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi are known to have made many books of sexually explicit work, although because of censorship laws these were rarely if ever signed. On the whole though, the government were relaxed about pornography and the Japanese at the time had very different views on nakedness and sexuality to those that the majority hold today. Shunga never seemed to suffer great purges in the way that sexually explicit material in the west has done in the same period. Interestingly there is a whole sub-genre of homosexual pornography. Homosexuality was not illegal in Japan until the twentieth century and then only from pressure from the Americans with whom the Japanese wanted to appear ‘civilised’.

There is renewed academic interest in shunga and this is also reflected in the market. Some shunga, especially that of Utamaro, is justly among some of the best regarded work in Japanese art. There are so many others that intrigue and are simply delightful and sexy and like it or not can be enjoyed for many reasons and not necessarily the purpose for which they were intended.


I also recommend Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan1700-1820 by Timon Screech, by far the most intelligent assessment of the subject to date.

Note: Since I have no wish to block access to the blog to under eighteens, I have chosen to illustrate only very anodyne examples of shunga and an example of contemporary censorship which some might find entertaining. For uncensored examples there are some Utamaro pictured here.

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