What is Shunga? A (NSFW) Guide to Japanese Erotic Art

According to an article on the British Museum blog in 2017, the most popular seach term on their website was “Egypt”. This isn’t very surprising, but the second most popular term, “shunga” is more interesting. But what is shunga? And why are so many people searching for it? Well, shunga is a type of Japanese erotic art. The British Museum hosted a great shunga exhibition in 2014, which perhaps goes some way to explain the search term. 

In this post, we’ll discuss the history of shunga, and the influence it had on later artists around the world. But first, a warning. Since we’re talking erotic art here, this post does of course contain some content that is decidedly NSFW.

Sex in Edo Japan and the Origins of Shunga

If you translate it literally, the word “shunga” means “pictures of Spring”. This sounds innocent enough until you realise that “spring” is a common Japanese euphemism for sex.

Most shunga are part of ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese art made up of paintings and woodblock prints, which flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries. The style of shunga reached its height in the Edo period, between 1603 and 1867. And it seems that it was enjoyed by people of all classes.

Though shunga as an art form was banned several times during this period, it continued to flourish, operating at various levels of secrecy depending on the strictness of the law.

What were the cultural views about sex in Edo Japan?

In Edo Japan, there were strict laws against adultery, and expectations of respectability to be maintained. However, Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan, sees sex as natural, and by no means sinful or shameful.

People were also quite used to seeing each other naked, for example at communal baths. Or sometimes while working in rice fields. This meant that nudity was not seen as inherently sexual – which is why you’ll often see shunga depicting figures that are fully clothed. It’s also why eroticism in shunga had to be emphasized in other ways – hence the comically large genitals.

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by Katsushika Hokusai is one of the more famous (and disturbing!) shunga images. Even if you’ve never sought out Japanese art, you’ve definitely seen Hokusai’s most famous image, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

What is Shunga for?

There were a lot of different uses for shunga. One motivation for owning it was superstitious. It was seen as a sort of good luck charm, warding off death or fire.

However, we know that it was owned by several groups of people who would live separately from the opposite sex, such as samurai, who lived in barracks for months at a time, and travelling merchants. So from this, we can deduce that there may have been a more primal reason for owning shunga…

Though shunga was primarily designed by and for men, there is also evidence that it was owned by women too. Some sources even suggest that shunga was given to young brides as a sort of instruction manual for their wedding night. However, given the ludicrous proportions (of the… *ahem*… genitals) and impossible positions, it’s hard to imagine this would have been particularly useful!

There’s another use for shunga which is quite sweet: it could be used for laughter among friends.

A page from the erotic shunga book Utamakura, by Kitagawa Utamaro, 1788. As “erotic” as these woodprints might be, it’s hard to see those oversized genitals and gymnastic positions as anything but funny.  

What is Shunga’s Influence on Later Artists

Japanese woodprints including shunga first made their way to Europe in the early 19th century. By the mid to late 19th century, “le japonisme” was something of a craze with French artists. Artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and Degas were heavily influenced by Japonese art, including erotic art.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting, Femme Rousse Nue. Do you think shunga had any influence on this painting?

Shunga at the British Museum

Sadly, the British Museum does not have much Shunga on display today. Their Japanese erotic art exhibition ended in 2014. But you can still view some of the exhibits on Artsy or on the museum’s online catalogue.  And who knows – if the search term on their website remains as popular today, perhaps they’ll organise another exhibition!

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