Published on October 22, 2013 | by Edwige Dubois


Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art

The British Museum is hosting an exhibition on Japanese erotic art.

Known as Shunga; the paintings, books and printed artworks reflect the sexual pleasures of the Edo period (1600-1900) with humour and refinement.

Shunga – meaning spring pictures – is a Japanese euphemism for sex; although sex acts are explicit and detailed in the paintings, the characters are only partially nude.

The sensuous feeling of the pictures comes from the contrast between the intricacy of the textiles and the exaggerated size of the genitals.

The Japanese art form would often be collected as a 12-image album which was a traditional gift to share between newlyweds as a manual guide.

Even if it was lustful and used for personal inspiration and stimulation, Shunga must be differentiated from pornography.


Although Shunga was made illegal in 1722, the erotic prints were still tolerated and continued to circulate.

If some images were banned it was more likely to be because they represented high-ranking officials rather than for their eroticism.

The woodblock prints portray sexual lives of the ordinary people for the general public, while the hand scrolls were more expensive and aimed at the upper-classes.

Four seasonal hanging scrolls paintings instantly attract one’s attention in the room with their magnificent patterns, colours and texture.

Symbolism is featured widely in the elegant erotic art such as the plum blossoms for virginity.


Four different stages of a woman’s sexuality “from initial nervousness through liberation and maturity to final ripe satisfaction”- as described at the exhibition –  are each associated with a seasonal flower.

Despite the symbolism, Shunga art is full of humour; the oversized sexual organs, non-realist positions adopted by the characters and the parodies of medical textbooks are all comic effects brought to the art.

The exhibition offers a display of 150 pieces that guide you through different stages: from Shunga’s early period (before 1765), masterpieces (1765-1850) up to the modern world; depicting, for instance, Picasso’s love for Shunga or its influence on manga.

An introduction room to the Ukiyo-e movement or ‘Floating World’, is located on the right of the British Museum’s entrance.

It delivers interesting background information for its audience to take a deeper approach to the Shunga exhibition.

It explores the red-light districts of Edo in an immersive setting with Shoji blinds and traditional Japanese music.

”Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maples, singing songs, drinking wine and diverting ourselves in just floating, floating…” – Asai Ryoi  – 1665 – ‘A Tale of the Floating World’

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings are advised to avoid crowds and to access the ‘Floating World’ of the Shunga exhibition at the British Museum from October 3, 2013 – January 5, 2014 – Student Price: £5.00.


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