Nishikawa Sukenobu

The Kyoto-based artist Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750) is known mostly for the revolutionary style of his woodblock-printed book illustrations. When compared with works by predecessors such as Hishikawa Moronobu (d. 1694), Sukenobu’s line-work is noticeably gentler, and his figures have a more refined, graceful appearance. He specialized in the depiction of women from various social backgrounds, and from the most sumptuously dressed court ladies to destitute women living on the fringes of society, he imbued all of his female protagonists with a sense of calm, noble elegance. In the field of ukiyo-e from the early Edo period, one is hard pressed to find an artist who demonstrates a finer attunement to women’s lifestyles and a more genuine concern about their welfare than Sukenobu.

It is for these reasons that Sukenobu’s work in the field of shunga is so highly admired. Between 1710 and 1733, Sukenobu published at least thirty known erotic texts. The period of greatest artistic production, during which he published over one-third of this erotica, occurred between 1719 and 1722, and some scholars have argued that this surge in demand for erotic books was a reaction to the Kyōhō Reforms (1716-1745) instigated by the eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751). Yoshimune did not ban erotic literature until 1722, however, at which point Sukenobu’s output of shunga dropped precipitously.

Both Sukenobu’s residence in Kyoto and his insightful portrayal of women make him an ideal foil to the notion that shunga was produced specifically for the male population of Edo. His imagery — depictions of women aggressively seducing young men, happily acquiescing to their partners’ advances, or actively enjoying erotic books alongside their partners — may not reflect the darker realities of women’s sexual experiences in Japan’s male-oriented society, but they encourage us to believe that some aspects of Japan’s sexual culture during the Edo period were indeed egalitarian.