shunga japanese erotic art

Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. 1788

It’s hard to talk about ukiyo-e without discussing Shunga, a genre of wildly popular erotic art literally translated as ‘spring pictures.’ Produced between the 1600s and 1800s, they appealed to all classes in Japan and yet, for most of the 20th century, were banned in the country due to censorship. It’s telling that a foreign museum, in 2013, was the first to organize a large-scale Shunga Exhibition. But now Japan is playing catch-up. The Eisei Bunko Museum in Tokyo is organizing an exhibition of 122 pieces of Shunga, making it the largest exhibition of its kind in Japan.

shunga japanese erotic art

Shiki burui juni-ko (Twelve Tastes in the Classification of Passion) by Katsukawa Shuncho. 1785

Running from September 19 – December 23, 2015 the Shunga Exhibition presents an overarching view of some of the most explicit and brilliants pictures of pleasure ever produced. Exquisitely created, the imagery was often intended to be tender as well as humorous. One of the highlights of the show will be the mameban (‘bean size’) which, as its name indicates, were small 9 cm by 13 cm pocket-sized porn that people often carried with them.

Admission for the show is 1500 yen and you have to be 18 to enter. As a side note, it’s interesting to compare to the British Museum show, which simply stated “Parental guidance advised for visitors under 16.”

shunga japanese erotic art

Kiseru (Pipe) by Suzuki Harunobu. 1769

shunga japanese erotic art

Kinoe no komatsu (Pine Seedlings on the First Rat Day by Katsushika Hokusai. 1814

Japan’s first appearance of tentacle porn? The above image of a female diver being pleasured by a large and a small octopus is the one that understandably fascinates people the most. The text surrounding them describes her cries and exclamations of pleasure. A curator at the British Museum had this to say about the bizarre print:

For all that this is an image of far-fetched fantasy, with its powerfully volumetric forms and brilliant colouring, it nonetheless gives the vivid sensation that we are direct witnesses of the scene, as the tentacles seem to slither and writhe before our gaze. The diving woman who gives up her body for the octopus to have its way may at first appear ‘lifeless, like a corpse’ but in fact she has all but lost consciousness with the pleasure that the creature is giving her.

And also offers so context as to possible inspiration for the odd combination:

The idea for the pairing of octopus and diving woman was not original to Hokusai. Some thirty years earlier the artist Kitao Shigemasa (1739–1820) drew a similar combination in his erotic book Yo-kyoku iro bangumi (Programme of Erotic Noh Plays) of 1781 (Shunga, cat. 90), where the context was the ancient Taishokan tale of the diver woman who stole a jewel from the Dragon King’s Palace at the bottom of the sea.


Chigo no sōshi (Book of Acolytes) made by an unknown artist. 1321

The oldest and most famous Japanese depiction of male-male sexual relations (nanshoku). Again, the curator explains: “This scroll is direct evidence for the practice of affective and sexual relations between mature monks and acolytes, which was quite widespread in Buddhist temples in Japan in the medieval period (sex between monks and women was more strictly forbidden).”


shunga japanese erotic art
shunga japanese erotic art