Sexual Boundaries in Shunga: Notions of Personal Space, Privacy, and Rape

At what point does art’s ability to reveal images beyond our imagination begin to conflict with an individual’s right to privacy and become indefensibly intrusive and exploitative? Perhaps no other genre grapples with this question more than erotica, and since these questions are entirely subjective, some viewers will inevitably feel that certain artworks transcend the boundaries of good taste.

The degree of privacy available to the people of early modern Japan was far more limited than in contemporary western society. Customs such as communal bathing were common, and Japanese architecture relied upon shoji screens and other light materials that made eavesdropping and voyeurism all but unavoidable.

The rules of decorum regarding sexual activity were likewise quite different from our own. While high-ranking prostitutes of the Yoshiwara brothel district expected nothing less than the utmost respect and propriety from their clients, women and wakashū who worked in unlicensed brothels throughout the archipelago must have been extremely tolerant and desensitized to unruly customers. Sadly, sexual abuse was an unavoidable reality for prostitutes.