Prohibited image of homosexual and lesbian sex in Shunga


Shunga, literally “images of spring”, is a General term used to describe erotic prints, books, scrolls and paintings from Japan.


Only recently (in the 1990-ies) the study of Shunga, images depicting homosexual (male-male) 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 due to anxiety and bigotry against a specific subject in the past.


Homosexuality, in Japanese called nansoku the meaning of 'men', not an uncommon phenomenon during the Edo (today's in 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 rules and the lack of women can be seen as decisive factors for the huge amount of homosexual activities. The most prominent feature of the images in Shunga of male-male sex is the relationship between the two involved “lovers”. The leading and dominant male with his shaven head is always higher 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 women’s clothing 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 at 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 partner, and being taken from behind by an attacker. 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.

Women’s Secrets

Although there was a Japanese term for male-Male ( nanshoku ) and male-female, joshoku or nyoshoku the meaning of 'Female love#39;, there is No such words to describe women-female sex or lesbianism. Most of Shunga's I have encountered as a dealer in the past 15 years regarding explicitly female concentrated designs (approx. 20!) Depicted either isolated women masturbating using fingers or harigata (artificial phallus / penis) or two intimate women using this same sexual device. Hokusai (1760-1849), the most famous master of Ukiyo-e developed two lesbians EON (the book of prints including one with two awabi (abalone) divers using a sea cucumber). Until now the only Shunga in this thread, which has been described in the literature airy'a famous design from his Oban sized series ' models of calligraphy ' (Fumi no kiyogaki), published in 1801. In his 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 lifestyle that pushed them in each other'arms, Eisho (eiri) was associated with the physical details of their relationship. And while even such an open-minded artist Lautrec felt that such details were more than could be reasonably presented to his public, for the Japanese they were the Central design element. “ (Evans – 'Shunga, the Art of love in Japan')

It should be emphasized that these images of lesbianism in Shunga were the result of male fantasies, designed by men and intended for a male audience.

In-Depth Look

Despite the confusion, the Japanese at first felt for the representation of these suppressed themes in the Shunga genre it's exactly these particular images that provide insight into the cultural and historical background of their country during the Edo period.

Recommended Reading

'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 fantasy' (2005) – K. Uhlenbeck and M. Winkel

Important Shunga Artists

Hishikawa Moronobu (? -1694)
Suzuki Harunobu (C. 1725-1770)
Isoda Koryusai (1735-90)
Airy Chokyosai (act. P. 1789-1801)
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806)
Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815)
Katsukawa Shuncho (act. C. 1780’s-early 1800-ies)
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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