The Audience and Usages of Shunga

The popularity of erotica during the Edo period (1615-1868) has long been linked by scholars to the shogunate’s policy of alternative residence (sankin kōtai), which was intended to prevent civil unrest from developing in the provinces. The lord (daimyō) of each province was mandated to spend half of every year in the capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo) accompanied by a large army of retainers. Though the lords’ families were allowed to reside in Edo (they were, in fact, kept as hostages of the shogun while the lords returned to their provinces), the families of the lords’ retainers were forced to remain in their home provinces, and the gender demographics of Edo became extremely imbalanced. Brothel districts such as the Yoshiwara were established and legalized by the shogunate in order to appease the city’s sexually frustrated populace, but for those residents who chose not to hire prostitutes, erotica became a popular refuge. According to this explanation, therefore, shunga functioned primarily as a masturbatory aid.

A variety of evidence, however, contradicts this explanation and suggests that the audience of shunga included both men and women throughout the entire country. Many producers of erotica, such as the author Nishizawa Ippū (1641-1731) and the artist Yoshida Hanbei (act. late 17th c.) were based in the Kamigata region (Kyoto and Osaka in western Japan), and their works were likely never intended for wide-scale distribution in Edo. Works of mainstream theater, written and originally performed in western Japan — including the 1748 bunraku puppet play Kanadehon Chūshingura (The 47 Ronin), indisputably the most famous theater production of the Edo period—also discussed erotica in ways that indicate the genre’s popularity beyond the capital.

The assortment of texts displayed here are intended to clarify how the more sexually explicit ones might have been valued for reasons other than their use in autoeroticism. Some of these texts were simply fashion guides meant to instruct young female readers how to appeal to potential suitors. Despite their graphic depictions, early Edo-period sex guides for newlyweds were as didactic in nature as these fashion guides, while ribald re-imaginings of classical literature were clearly intended as lighthearted, satirical humor.

Not only does the argument that shunga was used primarily for the purpose of autoeroticism disregard the overtly instructive or comical intent of many works, it also creates an artificial delineation between works of erotica and other genres of visual art and literature. As this exhibition aims to demonstrate, within a particular context, even the most prosaic image or text can develop an aura of sexuality, and, reciprocally, the most explicit artwork can eventually lose its power to arouse or titillate viewers.