Japanese erotic prints known as “shunga”—literally, “spring pictures”—are described by Tokyo Shimbun (May 1) as “one type of ‘ukiyo-e’ (floating world picture) that was popular during the Edo era, characterized as pictures that include genitalia. The humorous descriptions led to them being called ‘Warai-e’ (laughing pictures), and women enjoyed them too.
“They existed in a wide variety of themes, including the genre of (so-called) pillow books and Japanese or Chinese classics, and parodies of stories. They were brought as part of new brides’ trousseaus out of hopes for a happy marriage, and were also kept as lucky charms by members of the warrior class.
“Nearly all of the best-known woodblock print artists drew them at one time or another and their level as works of art is recognized to the extent that it’s been said ‘in shunga can be found the highest techniques of the times in terms printing and carving,’” the description concludes.
This topic is not in the paper’s features or art section, but appears as the top story on page 1. This prominent treatment has been accorded because from this coming October through January, the British Museum in London will be exhibiting an extensive collection of Japanese shunga art, which will subsequently take to the road and appear in other countries, including Japan.
In recent times, the pictures have come to be appreciated as authentic works of art and enjoyed by growing numbers of women. Some on the other hand, they were long regarded as “obscene,” which created various problems for exhibiting them in public.
The upcoming exhibit at the British Museum will feature works by such master illustrators as Katsushika Hokusai, Kitagawa Utamaro and others, numbering more than 150 in total. The exhibit will be the only one at the museum timed to observe the 400th anniversary of the first exchanges between Japan and Great Britain.
“Shunga are deep art. They are different from simple pornography,” asserts Aki Ishigami, a special researcher at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University.
Mitsuru Uragami, who owns one of the world’s largest collections of Hokusai prints, tells Tokyo Shimbun that he offered materials for a shunga exhibit to more than 20 art museums and museums in Tokyo, but they all turned him down.
“At the level of the curators, they all expressed interest, and in some cases the arrangements were all but decided when they got cold feet and backed out,” he sighs.
One of the museums that turned down the shunga exhibit was the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno. Nobuyuki Matsumoto, a curator responsible for planning projects, explained, “As a public museum we exhibit things because they are art. But afterwards it’s difficult to pretend as if we didn’t know what it was. Taking children into consideration, we cannot help but become more prudent.”
A curator at another museum pointed out that as large-scale exhibitions are usually co-sponsored by newspaper companies or other major firms, it’s difficult to find companies willing to sponsor a shunga exhibit. “We really do want to hold one, but we’re worried about complaints,” he said.
In the past, shunga in Japan enjoyed an open existence in which both young and old, males and females, could appreciate them. From Japan’s emergence from national seclusion and trend toward westernization from the Meiji Period this changed completely, and they became illicit due to their being “objects of shame that we didn’t want to show to westerners.”
Afterwards, they were excluded from serious art studies and became a taboo. As a recent example, the article cites the case of a 1995 exhibit at the British Museum of works by Utamaro, which included shunga. When the exhibition later moved to Japan, the shunga were excluded.
Now almost 20 years later, a shunga boom of sorts has emerged in publishing. One company, Heibonsha, has published a series of shuga books that scored a hit, further raising interest.
From January of this year, Vermeer Center Ginza attracted visitors with a Hokusai exhibition that featured a limited exhibit of shunga. “People of all generations came, and I was surprised to see so many women,” said the organizer. The exhibit was extended for two months, to the end of May, and access days increased from only two days a week to daily.
“Anybody can see such images in bookstores, so why can’t they view the actual prints?” asks University of Tokyo professor Naoyuki Kinoshita. “Art embodies the ‘force of reality’ that enables us to better understand the real things that we see.”