Ancient Japanese Erotic Art Will Amaze You – The Complete Guide to Japanese Shunga

Japanese Shunga Art Explore

Japan is known all over the world for its special attitude to everything that is frank. Erotica in Japan has a long and long history, dating back to the Edo period when shunga art – erotic prints – became popular. What distinguishes art from vulgarity?

What Is Shunga?

  • The term shunga literally translates to “spring pictures”, but it really has nothing to do with the seasons. This term refers to erotic images that became popular during the Edo period (1603-1868). The engravings are very diverse in their themes and styles, and they can be depicted on them as refined intimate moments, as well as absolutely vulgar scenes.

Although the shunga period dates back to the Heian period (794-1192), their production was difficult and costly due to insufficient technology development. Therefore, only people of the upper class could afford to own not only shunga, but also any other objects of art.

  • During the Edo period (1603-1868), the shunga print technique on wooden blocks was introduced, allowing high-quality images to be printed in large quantities. The artists carved the images on wooden blocks, which were then covered with ink and pressed against the paper, leaving a seal. The technology improved, the mass production of images made them more accessible, cheaper and, therefore, contributed to the widespread dissemination of shunga paintings.

You probably know “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushiki Hokusai, which is probably one of the most famous modern shunga in the world of ukiyo-e prints. However, what is interesting, its author painted not only famous landscapes but also erotica. In general, many famous artists painted in the shunga genre, and Hokusai was no exception.

However, the artists were not looking for fame. Tim Clark, the curator of the shunga Japanese art exhibition at the British Museum, explains, “It is safe to say that everyone in Japanese society, from the ruling class to the general urban population, has used and enjoyed shunga.” The high demand for erotic prints meant that shunga sold better than other prints, and artists simply entered the most lucrative market.

The series of ancient Japanese erotic art was rarely seen, more often these were separate illustrations, and the plots did not play a particularly important role in this genre. They gained immense popularity in Edo, the then capital.

What Was Shunga Used For? Shunga Meaning

What Was Shunga Used For and meaning

Why did people of the Edo period buy shunga? The reasons were very different: from completely logical to absurd.

Let’s start with the absurd – some shunga owners somehow believed that these Japanese shunga paintings bring good luck. The warriors believed that they were helping to avoid death. They say the shunga even prevented fires.

Flammable homes and the simultaneous use of fire as a source of light and heating were ongoing problems in Japan at the time. So in those days, vigilant homeowners bought shunga in order to save their homes from fire.

If we talk about more logical reasons, then shunga exotic art was used as a textbook on sex education. More detailed shunga was even given to children in wealthy families. Such educational aids, of course, were useful not only for adolescents but also for adults.

However, it is believed that the main reason for the popularity of Japan shunga is quite obvious – these prints were a source of pleasure. Such erotica was intended for those who, due to lack of time or finances, and also because of the ethical side, could not visit brothels.

It is no coincidence that Edo became the place where this engraving became popular. Tokugawa’s laws helped in some way to popularize the shunga in both sexes. Traveling around the country was difficult, and couples could not see each other for months. Japanese shunga has become a cheap and reused alternative to red-light districts and pleasure houses.

Japanese Shunga Artwork

Japanese Shunga Artwork

Good Old Love

Most shung depicted intimate moments full of love and affection. Nothing out of the ordinary, vulgar or extreme – just gentle physical contact between partners that brings pleasure.

Unexpected Fashion

Oddly enough, many of the people depicted in the shunga are dressed. In those days, the costume was a way to show off wealth and a way to attract attention, including in terms of sex. Fine silks and luxurious geisha clothing, for example, attracted admiring glances from men. Partially nude bodies seemed more attractive and provocative than fully nude ones. This is why most shunga depicts people this way.


Heterosexual couples in shunga were the norm, but not the rule. During the Edo period, relationships were not divided into heterosexual and homosexual, they were just a manifestation of feelings.

Moreover, male love remained a solid part of Japanese society. In Japan, homoerotic themes were adopted, which in the West at that time could be rejected as immoral.

Gender Intrigue

Oddly enough, in shunga, it is difficult to understand the gender of the depicted people, since they are depicted almost the same, except for, of course, the genitals. Sometimes it is even more difficult to understand where one’s body is in general – the bodies of lovers are so closely intertwined with each other.

Fashion also did not add clarity, because both genders wore kimonos. The clothes also hid the outlines of the bodies, which would allow at least some conclusions to be drawn. Shunga also featured actors and prostitutes in disguise. Many Westerners, for example, often mistake attractive young men for girls. Male actors in theaters played female roles, and offstage, selling themselves, they also wore women’s clothing. So gender identification in shunga is not easy, if not impossible.

Vulgarity? Art? Or Maybe Both?

Shunga Artworks

As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but time has been kind to the shunga. Many modern people recognize these engravings as a work of art; exhibitions in famous museums are devoted to this genre. However, in their homeland of Japan, shunga is still considered obscene.

Despite their reputation as one of the most deprived countries when it comes to sex and eroticism, the Japanese are actually very conservative. However, this was not always the case. The attitude of the Japanese and Japanese law towards sex and nudity has largely shaped Western taboos. Since 1872, the government began to regulate and control prostitution more strictly in order to make the country more “civilized” from the point of view of Western countries. This was followed by laws prohibiting shunga.

In all likelihood, few people of the Edo period acquired shunga for their artistic value. In an era when there were no magazines, videos, and the Internet, shunga was the equivalent of modern pornography. It is therefore understandable why Japanese law considered shung to be obscene. However, many people consider non-erotic prints to be art objects.

So you have learned all the most necessary information about shunga, thanks to our article, which we have prepared with the team for you.

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