New Strategies in 19th-Century Shunga

The ways in which Japanese erotica and the sexual culture of Japan transformed in the late Edo period (1615–1868) deserve as much attention as those factors that led to the popularization of shunga during the 17th century.

In the early 19th century, the Yoshiwara district, with its romanticized re-imagining of Heian courtly life and sublimated sexuality, lost its status as the mecca of Japan’s sexual culture when bathhouses, teahouses and other locales in Edo and along the Tōkaidō and Kisokaidō highways offered more exotic opportunities for pleasure. Accordingly, although shunga continued to discuss the sex industry, images of prostitutes from the Yoshiwara took less precedence, and the relationships between characters depicted became more ambiguous.

Humor remained an essential aspect of Japanese erotica in the 19th century, but as the general public seemingly lost interest in traditional subjects of parody such as religion and classical literature, artists explored other, more fashionable themes, such as fantasy literature and sports. By this time, the genre of shunga had been widely celebrated for nearly two hundred years, and 19th- century artists often recalled that history in an alternately reverential and satirical light.