The Japanese have never been shy or squeamish about sex. Modern Japanese have an ambivalent attitude toward the subject: on the one hand they feign shock and horror at the mention of sex; on the other hand pornography — soft and hardcore — is ubiquitous, and sexual establishments offering extensive menus are found throughout the country. It is hardly surprising then that shunga, the woodblock prints once considered mass-market erotica but now viewed as high art, originated in Japan.
Shunga, which translates as “images of spring,” evolved from matrimonial manuals for newlyweds called makura-ebon or “pillow books” that featured graphic images of foreplay and a gamut of sexual positions deemed essential to a successful marriage. In the 1680s, however, when advances in technology reduced the time and cost of producing woodblock prints, the focus of the erotic prints switched from one of education to one of titillation.
With this switch, a new name for the genre was coined. Shunga, as it became known, is a combination of two words: “shun” from “baishun” (“selling spring” — a euphemism for prostitution) and “ga” (picture). This term was chosen because most shunga dealt with the world of prostitution, a flourishing industry in Edo (now Tokyo) by the 17th century.
Edo‘s population suffered an imbalance of the sexes — there were thousands of samurai or male vassals in the service of the shogun, or feudal lord, quartered in the city and very few available women — that greatly boosted demand for prostitution. This demand was met with the establishment of Yoshiwara, a twenty-acre brothel complex housing over 3,000 prostitutes. It was here that shunga was born.
Shunga prints were originally created to advertise the facilities in Yoshiwara, including the tea houses, restaurants and theaters, as well as the brothels. But the new art form quickly took on a life of its own, portraying every imaginable form of sexual activity from straight heterosexual acts through sodomy, pedophilia, bestiality and a wide range of fetishes. Hand scrolls and albums featuring shunga soon became popular, and the prints were enjoyed by both men and women of all ranks, from the very top of society to the bottom.
To Westerners, shunga prints were originally difficult to assimilate. The sexual acts in many of the prints are often grossly caricatured, with outrageously proportioned genitalia — perhaps because native Japanese religions practiced phallic worship — and extraordinary sexual positions. The subjects are frequently reduced to graphic icons with facial features that seldom vary.
The distinct lack of expression on the faces of the subjects, especially the women, is a characteristic of shunga. In the shunga The Masseur and the Girl, the woman featured is surely about to bite off more than she can chew, yet her face remains expressionless. Most women confronted with such a monstrous male organ would certainly appear surprised. The Older Women and the Young Man, however, is one of those rare prints in which the women do show expression, this time at the sight of the young man’s enormity. One of the women looks absolutely thrilled, while the other appears shocked.
Nakedness in itself was not considered erotic. Public nudity was a way of life for the Japanese — mixed bathing in public bathhouses was the norm — before the country opened up to the West and adopted many of the sexual repressions of the Victorians. Consequently, most of the figures in shunga are either clothed or half clothed, with only their genitalia exposed, a condition that was and still is considered highly stimulating by the Japanese.
In the restricted living spaces of old Japan — and to some extent, those of today — sexual activities were often semi public, so it is no surprise that group sex scenes also feature in shunga, as do scenes in which a couple are having sex in front of children. An exaggerated perspective of Japanese open-mindedness can be seen in At the River’s Edge, in which a group of people unashamedly pleasure each other.
Another common feature of shunga is the presence of a voyeur. In The Voyeur, the watcher is a woman and more than likely a younger prostitute observing the performance as part of her training. In The Cuckold, however, the man hiding under the futon to observe the tryst has a contorted facial expression that could mean he is masturbating, another common theme in shunga. The characters engaged in the sexual activity are usually blissfully unaware that they are under observation, no matter, as in the print titled Out of the Mosquito Net, how blatant the act of peeping is. An interesting twist on the role of the voyeur in shunga is the man in Unnoticed Affair. Hearing a noise in the room beneath, the man strains his ears and is surprised at the noises coming from below. “I’ll have to ask the wife,” he says to himself, “if she’s ever heard that sucking noise down there.”
Unlike countries bound by Christian ethics, Japan has never frowned on masturbation. It therefore comes as no surprise to find that self-stimulation frequently appears in shunga. Voyeurs peeping around a corner or through a space in the shoji (sliding screens) at a copulating couple are often masturbating. Women are often shown stimulating themselves while a man looks on, as in Man Watching Woman Masturbate, or a woman taking a man, often a younger than her, in hand, as in The Boy and the Older Woman.
In the creation of shunga, reality usually took backseat to artistic freedom. In Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by the renowned ukiyoe artist Hokusai, an octopus — with the eyes of a lecherous man — is performing oral sex on an ecstatic woman. Female abalone divers, who dived for shellfish in the costal areas, were popular subjects in shunga, and were occasionally depicted pleasuring themselves with sea creatures such as a sea cucumber, an animal that, like the male penis, stiffens and ejects a jet of fluid when stroked.
Although there was no stigma attached to shunga — all the great Japanese woodblock artists produced them — the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853 was the beginning of the end for this unique art form. A new form of morality was imposed on the country and shunga disappeared from sight. Fortunately, most of the prints were saved and now appear in museums and art books around the world. The exception is Japan, where, ironically, shunga is proscribed as pornographic.
© Charles R. Pringle 2007
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