Shunga (春画) is a Japanese term for erotic art. Most shunga are a type of ukiyo-e, usually executed in woodblock print format. While rare, there are extant erotic painted handscrolls which predate the Ukiyo-e movement. Translated literally, the Japanese word shunga means picture of spring; "spring" is a common euphemism for sex.
The ukiyo-e movement as a whole sought to express an idealisation of contemporary urban life. Following the aesthetics of everyday life, Edo period shunga sought to express the sexual mores of the chonin in the widest variety of forms possible, and therefore depicted heterosexual and homosexual, old and young alike, as well as a wide range of fetishes. In the Edo period it was enjoyed by rich and poor, men and women, and despite being out of favour with the shogunate, carried very little stigma. Almost all ukiyo-e artists made shunga at some point in their careers, and it did not detract from their prestige as artists. Classifying shunga as a kind of medieval pornography can be misleading in this respect.
Edo period shunga sought to express a varied world of contemporary sexual possibilities. Many writers on the subject refer to this as the creation of a 'pornotopia,' a world parallel to contemporary urban life, but idealised, eroticised and fantastical
Courtesans also form the subject of many shunga. Utamaro was particularly revered for his depictions of courtesans, which offered an unmatched level of sensitivity and psychological nuance. Tokugawa courtesans could be described as the celebrities of their day, and Edo's pleasure district, Yoshiwara, is often compared to Hollywood. Men saw them as highly eroticised due to their profession, but at the same time unattainable, since only the wealthiest, most cultured men would have any chance of sexual relations with one. Women saw them as distant, glamorous idols, and the fashions for the whole of Japan were inspired by the fashions of the courtesan. For these reasons the fetish of the courtesan appealed to many.
Works depicting courtesans have since been criticised for painting an idealised picture of life in the pleasure quarters. It has been argued that they masked the situation of virtual slavery that sex workers lived under. However, Utamaro is just one example of an artist who was sensitive to the inner life of the courtesan, for example, showing them wistfully dreaming of escape from Yoshiwara through marriage.
Similarly, kabuki actors are often depicted, many of whom worked as gigolos. These carried the same fetish of the sex worker, with the added quality of them often being quite young. They are often shown with samurai.
Both painted handscrolls and illustrated erotic books (enpon) often presented an unrelated sequence of sexual tableaux, rather than a structured narrative. A whole variety of possibilities are shown—men seduce women, women seduce men; men and women cheat on each other; all ages from virginal teenagers to old married couples; even octopi were occasionally featured.
While most shunga were heterosexual, many depicted male-on-male trysts. Woman-on-woman was a rare feature but there are extant works depicting this. Masturbation was also depicted. The perception of sexuality differed, of course, in Tokugawa Japan from that in the modern Western world, and people were less likely to associate with one particular sexual preference. For this reason the many sexual pairings depicted were a matter of providing as much variety as possible.
The backstory to shunga prints can be found in accompanying text or dialogue in the picture itself, and in props in the background. Symbolism also featured widely, such as the use of plum blossoms to represent virginity or tissues to symbolise impending ejaculation.
Shunga couples are often shown in unrealistic positions with exaggerated genitalia. Explanations for this include increased visibility of the sexually explicit content, artistic interest and psychological impact: that is, the genitalia is interpreted as a 'second face,' expressing the primal passions that the everyday face is obligated by giri to conceal, and is therefore the same size as the head and placed unnaturally close to it by the awkward position.
In almost all shunga the characters are fully clothed. This is primarily because nudity was not inherently erotic in Tokugawa Japan – people were used to seeing the opposite sex naked in communal baths. It also served an artistic purpose; it helped the reader identify courtesans and foreigners, the prints often contained symbolic meaning, and it drew attention to the parts of the body that were revealed, i.e., the genitalia.