Supernatural Shunga: Exorcising Demons
In true shame-oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one.

-Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 1985

When shunga began to lose its provocative novelty in the 19th century, artists attempted to recapture the public’s interest by making their depictions of sexuality ever more graphic and disturbing. As further discussed elsewhere in this exhibition (see “Sexual Boundaries in Shunga: Notions of Personal Space, Privacy, and Rape”), one disconcerting aspect of 19th-century shunga is the ease and jocularity with which some artists discuss the issue of sexual aggression. Though not intended as justification, an analysis of the cultural values that underlie the artworks can help to reconcile the tone of those works with contemporary attitudes about gender equality and human rights.

Decades of concerted diplomacy since the end of the Pacific War have led to greater intercultural understanding between Japan and America, but during the 19th century, the ways in which these cultures defined morality were glaringly different. In a “guilt-based” culture such as America, individuals were trained to consider particular behaviors as sinful and to judge the virtue of others according to those standards. In combination with a fundamentally negative attitude towards sexuality, this value system led to pathologies such as the Madonna-whore complex, in which a person was unable to view a potential sexual partner with both desire and respect.

Much like the sociologist Ruth Benedict did in her groundbreaking text The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), the anthropologist Paul Gordon Hiebert (1932–2007) discussed the importance of personal honor in Japanese society and the influence that value system had upon concepts of justice and morality. In that “shame-based” culture, objectionable behavior was tolerated if it did not affect an individual’s social status. A crime that did not provoke protest, in other words, might not be considered a crime at all. Needless to say, such an approach to morality was easily abused.