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

The connections between ukiyo-e prints, sexuality, and religion are often sorely misunderstood by the general public. Before the 17th century, the term ukiyo meant “world of suffering” and was used in a Buddhist context to describe the inherently brutal nature of human life and to emphasize the importance of religious devotion, through which a practitioner sought to escape from the endless cycle of life, death, and reincarnation and to ultimately enter paradise (nirvana).

In 1666, Asai Ryōi (c. 1612–1691) wrote about the Shimabara brothel district in Kyoto and equated the prostitutes there with Amida Buddha. The title of this text, Tales of Ukiyo (Ukiyo monogatari), ironically replaces uki, the ideograph (kanji) for suffering, with the homonym “floating.” The term ukiyo thereby developed the meaning of “floating world,” which was completely divorced of its original religious context and used instead to promote the hedonistic and frivolous lifestyles embodied by Ryōi’s characters.

In 1682, Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–1694) reinforced Ryōi’s wordplay by coining the phrase ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) to describe the woodblock prints produced by him and his contemporaries, many of which were erotic. Since then, the term ukiyo has retained its ironic, secular meaning, and works of ukiyo-e have consistently lampooned religious narratives by inserting into them courtesans and other aspects of Japan’s sexual culture.

As can be seen by the artworks displayed here, in the 18th century ukiyo-e artists such as Suzuki Harunobu (1725?–1770), the innovator of full-color woodblock printing, continued to discuss religious topics in an erotic, farcical manner. Rather than condemned as blasphemous, the humor of these prints appears to have been warmly received by most viewers at that time. Harunobu was known to possess deep understanding and appreciation of classical Chinese and Japanese literature. By portraying his characters in a gentle, sympathetic light and veiling his references to sexuality, the artist expresses a modicum of respect for his religious subjects.