Shunga, literally “Images of Spring”, is the generic term used to describe erotic prints, books, scrolls and paintings of Japan.
Only recently (1990s) the study of shunga images depicting homosexual (male-male sex) and lesbian (female-female sex) acts of love have been commenced. This belated research of this “hidden domain” was caused by the official censorship in Japan and also because of the unease and prudery concerning the specific subject-matter in the past.
Homosexuality, in Japanese called nansoku meaning ‘male love’, was not an uncommon phenomenon during the Edo (today’s Tokyo) period in Japan. In the early years of the Tokugawa regime (early 17th century) men greatly outnumbered women in Edo. There were very strict rules imposed by the government inspired by the loyal standards of Confucianism which excluded women to participate in any kind of work with the exception of household tasks. These regulations and the shortage of women can be seen as deciding factors for the huge amount of homosexual activities. The most characteristic feature of the depictions in shunga of male-male sex is the relation between the two involved “lovers”. The leading and dominant male with his shaven head is always the older one, this on the basis of seniority or higher social status, while the subjected passive partner was a pre-pubescent or pubescent boy or a young man depicted with a unshaven forelock. These young boys are often shown in female cloths and therefore easily mistaken for girls. They served as pages to high ranking samurai’s, monks, wealthy merchants or older servants and were most desired during their adolesence especially between the age of 15 and 17 years when the anus was still without hair. There are also several shunga designs on the theme of threesome sex depicting one man (always a young male) in the midst of sexual intercourse with a female partner while being taken from behind by an intruder. In most shunga images representing man/youth anal intercourse, the genitalia of the young man are often concealed focusing the attention of the viewer on the garment and elegant lines of the body.
While there was a Japanese term for male-male (nanshoku) and male-female sex, joshoku or nyoshoku meaning ‘female love’, there was no such word to describe female-female sex or lesbianism. Most of the shunga’s I have come accross as a dealer in the past 15 years regarding explicitly female concentrated designs (approx. 20 various designs!) depicted either isolated women masturbating using her fingers or a harigata (artificial phallus) or two intimate women using this same sexual device. Hokusai (1760-1849), the most famous Ukiyo-e master designed two lesbian ehon (book) prints including one with two awabi (abalone) divers using a sea cucumber. Up to now the only shunga featuring this subject that has been described in literature is Eiri’s famous design from his oban sized series Models of Calligraphy’ (Fumi no kiyogaki) published in 1801. In their book ‘Shunga, the Art of Love in Japan’ (1975) Tom and Mary Evans make an interesting comparison with Eiri’s (they attribute it to Eisho) shunga design and the paintings of the influential post-impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec:
“Whereas Toulouse-Lautrec concentrated on the emotional bond between the girls, and the sad emptiness of the way of life which thrust them into each other’s arms, Eisho (Eiri) was concerned with the physical details of their relationship. And while even such an open-minded artist as Lautrec felt that such details were more than could be reasonably presented to his public, for the Japanese they were the central feature of the design”. (Evans – ‘Shunga, the Art of Love in Japan’)
It must be emphasized that these images of lesbianism in shunga were the result of male fantasies, designed by men and intended for a male audience.
Notwithstanding the embarassment the Japanese at first felt for the representation of these suppressed themes within the shunga genre it’s exactly these particular images that provide a profound view into the cultural and historical background of their country during the Edo period.
‘Shunga, the Art of Love in Japan’ (1975) – Tom and Mary Evans
‘Sex and the Floating World’ (1999) – Timon Screech
‘Japanese Erotic Prints’ (2002) – Inge Klompmakers
‘Japanese Erotic Fantasies’ (2005) – C. Uhlenbeck and M. Winkel
Important Shunga Artists
Hishikawa Moronobu (? -1694)
Suzuki Harunobu (c.1725-1770)
Isoda Koryusai (1735-90)
Chokyosai Eiri (act. c.1789-1801)
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753 -1806)
Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815)
Katsukawa Shuncho (act. c.1780s-early 1800s)
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
Yanagawa Shigenobu (1787-1833)
Keisai Eisen (1790-1848)
Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1867)
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)
Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)
Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-89)
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Source by Marijn Kruijff