Shunga before the 19th Century: The Age of Sexual Innocence

Though not overtly apparent in contemporary Japan, during the 17th and 18th centuries, when the genre of shunga was first developing, Confucian beliefs exerted a strong influence on Japanese culture. People were taught to refrain from public displays of affection, and for that reason, shunga and its rebellious advocacy of personal pleasure were both appealing and frighteningly transgressive. Although many were curious about erotic books, the mere act of browsing through one was filled with the danger of public disapproval, and so publishers designed small, discrete books with simple, non-descript covers. The imagery in the prints and books, likewise, was very restrained. To keep the content lighthearted yet respectable, artists often made satirical reference to history, religion, and classical literature. In order to maintain a sense of innocence, the characters in shunga often appeared no older than adolescents, and when an artist wanted to display genitalia prominently, he would often anthropomorphize the reproductive organs by depicting them as walking, talking figures.

This emphasis on innocence and cultural integrity was mirrored by trends in the commercial sex industry at that time. When the shogunate attempted to prevent civil unrest from developing in the provinces by requiring the lord (daimyō) of each province to spend half of every year in the capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo), the government realized that the hordes of sexually frustrated government officials and male retainers who filled the city could only be appeased by legalizing prostitution within the Yoshiwara, a brothel district on the outskirts of Edo. Though Confucianism condemned prostitution as harshly as it did erotica, the proprietors of the Yoshiwara cleverly legitimized their industry by modeling every aspect of the district after the classical culture of the Heian period (794–1185), thereby imbuing the brothels with a sense of aristocratic sophistication. The courtesans were even required to assume the names, identities, and lifestyles of characters from The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari, 1021), the novel written by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978–1014).