Shunga (lit. spring pictures) refers to playful visual Japanese erotica or explicitly sexual artifacts, including paintings and woodblock prints, which were widely produced as a genre of ukiyoe (lit. pictures of the floating world) during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). The root word shun, or “spring,” also refers to “sexual activities.” Shunga were also known as waraie (humorous pictures) or makurae (pillow books for sex education). From the 18th Century onwards Shunga evolved into vivid and multi-colored prints due to improvements in woodblock printing techniques.
Shunga overtly depicts heterosexual and homosexual lovers in erotic activities, most of whom are partially clothed and whose genitals are comically exaggerated and exposed. Many shunga also include a voyeuristic spectator or potential participant. The presence of this third person in such scenes derived from the Japanese literary tradition of kaimami (lit. seeing through fence) which was a convention for dramatizing courtship in Heian-era literature. It should be noted that in general, women in shunga are not portrayed as victims but sexual partners in the depicted erotic activities.
The creators of shunga include many ukiyoe artists such as Hishikawa Moronobu (pioneer of ukiyoe and shunga), Suzuki Harunobu (known for his aesthetic style involving, colorful pictures of slender bodies), Kitagawa Utamaro (known for his fluid, curvy and refined drawings) and the versatile and adventurous Katsuhika Hokusai. Although shunga and ukiyone in general are highly stylized, Hokusai’s works demonstrated his continual effort at realistic portrayal of human bodies, exemplified by the female sea diver’s naked body and facial expressions in his controversial work of Tako to ama (Octopuses and a female diver).
Shunga evolved from Japanese townspeople’s culture during the Edo period and were consumed as witty and momentary diversions from socially regulated town life. Comicalness was also a strong part of Edo culture as exemplified by the large volume of parodies of classic Japanese literature such as The Tale of Genji. Shunga were often published in illustrated storybooks (e.g., kibyōshi) or accompanied with written texts that supplied descriptions aiding and enhancing their enjoyment. These storybooks are also characterized by the inclusion of detailed backgrounds some of which are highly stylized with visual allusions to poetic works including the Heian-period Tales of Ise. The production of such illustrated fiction even involved well-known authors such as Koikawa Harumachi, Santō Kyōden and Takizawa Bakin, indicating that shunga were far from peripheral works. When studying shunga today, we need to be aware that during the Edo period, nakedness (especially in public baths) and sexual activities were not generally regarded as obscene but were part of everyday life. The creation and distribution of explicitly sexual material such as shunga survived despite governmental restrictions, but were banned as obscene under western cultural influences during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Recognition and legitimation of shunga as objects of cultural value and research objects has only occurred in recent decades, especially during the commemoration of the 400th Anniversary of the commencement of the Edo period.