Shunga before the 19th Century: Parodies of Religion in Erotic Books

One of the great accomplishments of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled the country throughout the Edo period (1615–1868), was its education of the general populace. At the beginning of the 17th century, only the most wealthy samurai families were able to read and write. However, within the following 250 years, the establishment of over 11,000 public schools (terakoya) caused the literacy rate to soar to roughly 40%, rivaling that of many Western nations. Students were trained to read, write, and use an abacus. The literature to which they were exposed was mainly limited to Confucian discussions on morality and classical poetry.

It is not surprising, therefore, that novels and other recreational texts that began to circulate publicly during the early Edo period often referred irreverently to tales from the Heian era (794–1185), particularly those samples of classical literature that readers had at one time or another been begrudgingly forced to memorize, such as excerpts from Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978–c. 1014).

Among the most important religious texts in early modern Japan were the Record of Ancient Matters (Kojiki, c. early 8th century), which describes the pantheon of gods in Shinto (literally, “Way of the Gods”), the indigenous belief system in Japan based upon the belief that spirits (kami) inhabit all animate and inanimate matter. In Shinto mythology, these gods, such as the sun goddess Amaterasu-no-ōmikami, exhibit surprisingly human behavior, and the tales about how the gods created the universe are unashamedly ribald in tone.

In Japanese sects of Buddhism, the most revered texts are sutras (Japanese: okyō), which are prose discourses designed to explain the nature of the universe or to instruct believers about proper conduct. During Buddhist gatherings, the participants would chant certain sutras repeatedly, and in order to keep track of their progress, they would enumerate the chants with Buddhist prayer beads (juzu). Because the meaning of these sutras were often quite cryptic, at these gatherings, a priest or abbot would offer his insights in the form of a lecture.

Though Daoism is not recognized as a popular belief system in contemporary Japan, it was a subject of intense curiosity among small, locally organized groups of believers during the Edo period (1615–1868). Chinese Daoist texts, such as the Zhuangzi, purportedly written by Zhuang Zhou (active c. 4th century B.C.) and the Daodejing (c. late 4th century B.C.), attributed to Laozi (active c. 6th century B.C.), were often philosophical discussions about the elemental forces of nature, such as the masculine energy yang (Japanese: ) and the feminine counterforce yin (Japanese: in), and ways in which to balance those forces.