Brief Note of Whats & Whys Vol. 2 – Shunga

Here comes my long overdue Shunga blog. My apologies for the long delay, I know I promised it ages ago… The Shunga samples in this blog are used to demonstrate concepts and may not be strictly accurate to timeline.

Shunga (’Spring Pictures’), known by many westerners as, ‘Japanese historical pornographic pictures (drawn on scrolls, papers, and woodblocks)’. I’d say that’s a fair understanding. In this blog, I hope to expand your knowledge on the whats and whys around Shunga to offer a fuller picture of Japan’s ‘historical hot sex’.


Timeline-wise, Shunga before 1700 was widely understood as a vessel of humour and parody. It wasn’t circulated in mass amounts, was nowhere near refined, and was associated with a kind of… laughable bawdiness. After around 1700s, Shunga began to slowly evolve towards a self-conscious form of erotic art that focuses on the act of sex – nudity, masturbation, and penetration. One hundred years later in the 1820s (the Mid-Edo Era), Shunga has developed multiple forms of carriers (print, woodblocks, scrolls) portraying the erotic pleasure between couples, especially that in the pleasure quarters.

As the technology develops, Shunga proliferated widely across the country by the late 1700s. Its realistic portrait and raising popularity fuelled a large anxiety in Edo Era Japan in fear of the spreading of STIs. Under such societal pressure, Shunga stimulated a branch of poets and painters into the pursuit of subtle eroticism. I’m personally grateful, because thanks to these artists, Japanese erotica developed a system of poetic subtle sexual symbols that are later widely used in literature and prints.

Here are some examples:
Everything associated with Yang:

  • Mountain = The penis.
  • Sword = The penis.

Everything associated with Yin:

  • Willow = A lady’s waist (from yanagi-koshi – ‘willowy waist’).
  • Clam = The female gentile.
  • Camel = Sex (from the pronunciationion of camel in Japanese: “Rakuda”).
  • Mirror = The voyeuristic pleasure of seeing something that shouldn’t be seen.
  • Kimono Sleeves = A silky, soft, inviting (open) analogy of the vagina.

Not to mention the other many plants and animals that symbolise natural vitality…
Courting/Mating animals, the Yin season: autumn and winter…

An interesting combination of erotic symbols is cherry and plum. Cherry symbolises young girl. Plum, on the other hand, is a masculine winter flower. The old saying goes: “Whereas a young cherry gave the best blossoms, a gnarled tree was best for plums.” It implies that young girls afford the best sex, whereas men improve with age. It is a statement most of us modern citizens don’t agree with, but back in the Edo Era Japan, it perfectly smoothed the patriarchal ego that commodified the female sex…



The is no clear conclusion as to what Shunga was for. The dominant argument is that it’s for “fantasy and solitary pleasure”, in other words, masturbation.

Excuse my nail there… I call this one the ancient style of Tumblr surfing……♡

The libidinous delights in Japan were considered as a pleasure in the Ukiyo ‘The Floating World’. Unlike regions where a dominant religion casts a shadow of shame on sex, there was no significant punitive narrative around seeking sexual pleasure. Sex work/Feudalist consumerism of sex in Edo Era Japan was not illegal. Quite the contrary, the high-class courtesans in Yoshiwara were the beacon of fashion (e.g. kimono, accessories, hairstyles…), just like celebrities on Instagram today.

Shunga was an important form of entertainment sought by men who couldn’t afford a physical visit to the grand pleasure quarter Yoshiwara. In a way, it played a crucial role as the promoter of sex and sex work. The noble samurai and rich merchants had the access to sex, while people of lower class entertained themselves with the fantasy of sex… through Shunga.


Now we’ve briefly been through the whats and whys. Shunga, like all other historical materials, can be seen taken out of context. Speaking of which, there are so many interesting themes I don’t have time to type out:

  • The exaggerations of genitalia
  • Same-sex Shunga
  • Shunga featuring foreigners
  • My favourite Shunga artists
  • Spooky Shunga sex with spirits and ghosts
  • Shunga and sex toys

If you’re interested in any of the above, I’d love to have a deeper discussion with you in person…♡

And I pray I will soon have the time to blog about historical sex toys!!!

Until we meet…♡

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