Japan: Art, Eroticism, and Religion

Poem of the Pillow
Produced in 18th-century Edo, Japan. Part of the Poem of the Pillow series—from the British Museum.

Although Japan’s artistic reputation is mostly concerned with porcelain-wares and decorative fabrics, by 1974, a strange treasure had appeared in the secret recesses of the British Museum. Though initially staff would’ve told an inquiring visitor that there was no such thing, there in fact lies an 18th-century woodblock painting of a woman who is bent over, holding her weight on her forearms, and making love with the man behind her. The pair is mostly clothed, except for the regions necessary for depicting the act, and a short poem penned above them indicates the season. What exactly is going on here? Well, let’s not stand perplexed for too long, and instead step back for the sake of the larger picture.

Many cultures have expressed primordial oneness as hermaphroditic; others, erotic. The Chinese yin-yang represents the duality of the universe as much as it does the human sexes. The “supreme” Hindu Shiva is often seen tightly clasping Shakti, his female half, expressing primordial unity in humans as the union of the sexes. Concerning the Judeo-Christian tradition, to the surprise of many, the Midrash Bereshit Rabba claims that Adam was originally simultaneously male and female, only before God extracted his female element to create Eve. As for Japanese Shintoism, there was Izanagi and Izanami.

Japan art

Izanagi and Izanami were the central deities in the Shinto creation myth who, in an act of creative impulse, threw a lightning spear from heaven— a phallic symbol, which, like all phallic symbols, is revered not for its visual relation to the penis, but for the active, generative force of life it represents. Izanami, the female half, was ultimately banished to the underworld, and the couple was thereby unable to remain one. In any case, the union of the sexes is an image which would persist in folk Japan.

The kami, or deity, related to sexuality is called “dosojin”— a kami couple that personifies the male-female dynamic. This symbolic notion is worshipped both through abstract icons such as a paired pine and myrtle tree, a tall rock enveloped by a tree, or more explicit scenes of love-making. These folkloric relics have been uncovered all over Japan, typically along roads, as dosojin literally means “road ancestor deity.” Dosojin relics can be found in tiered, hidden cupboards, and also can be used as amulets for a protective effect. These deities are revered at shrines, like in the Tagata shrine in Aichi prefecture, where an enormous tree trunk carved into a phallus hangs over worshippers’ heads, paired with testicles made of rope which visitors may solemnly pull. Other ancient discoveries of eroticism include a lewd drawing etched into the base of the bronze Buddha icon at Yakushiji temple and a variety of bawdy scrolls from the 12th century. One of these comedic scrolls depicts a strange contest over male size and performance. Erotic art of the Heian period (794 —1185) was popular among the courtier class and publicised sexual scandals from within the imperial courts and monasteries.

Tagata Shrine
Found in Tagata Shrine, from Aichi Now.

As woodblock painting techniques were developed during the Edo period (1603 —1867) the genre of “Shunga” came about and flourished. It was produced at various price points, which tells us that it was consumed by various classes. Shunga was enjoyed by all (except the shogunate, and the prudish Westerners who were soon to stumble upon it,) and sought to idealise the rising “chonin” middle class.

Much like the religiosity surrounding the origin of erotic art, a person would carry Shunga in their pocket in accordance with superstitious beliefs. It was said to protect against fire and death for merchants and samurai respectively, though since these two vocations involved being away from one’s wife for extended periods of time, one may suspect the intention in carrying Shunga to be of a more lascivious nature. The characters are often depicted in improbable contortions, and other, more practical, manuals on sex existed at the time, making it also unlikely that the thriving Shunga genre was used for instruction.

In 1617, the shogunate established redlight districts throughout urban Japan to direct middle-class pleasure toward. Lined with flowering cherry blossoms and always ornately decorated halls, these districts were the home of leisurely nights of tea-drinking, tobacco-smoking, and love-making. Women were generally sold to brothels by their families and had their freedom bought by men planning to make them into housewives. These pale-painted women (and sometimes boys, known as “wakashu,”) shuffled in thick, lurid clothing, wearing clogs up to 8 inches tall, and were often the muses of Shunga artists. The pleasure districts were abolished in 1957, and prostitution was outlawed the next year.

Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette, the queen of France.

Historians know Marie Antoinette to have been an avid collector of Japanese goods, which had at that point been confined to porcelain and decorative objects. In the 1850s, Japanese art re-emerged in Europe as new imports were being brought in, and among them were ukiyo-e paintings. Art critic Philippe Burty coined the term “Japonisme” to describe the trend they inspired.

At the same time, a rebellion against the strict methodologies of academic art was emerging in the hearts of some of Europe’s— soon to be—biggest names. Edouard Manet was studying for the bulk of the decade. In 1856, he had only just opened his studio, and already had begun his path of unconventionality as he portrayed subjects such as beggars, singers, and bullfighters. Edgar Degas, who was newly without a mother, and surrounded by a family of bachelors to dote on him, began his aspirations as a rectified history painter, though this aim would be eclipsed by a penchant for eccentricism. Claude Monet was in Paris, and was entering his adolescence— a time of anxious ambitions and impressionability. All of these artists were to be swept along with the whimsical winds of Japonisme as they passed the quaint art shops situated across London and Paris. Still to be mentioned is Vincent Van Gogh, the most iconic name among the influenced, who began collecting ukiyo-e prints and sharing them with his contemporaries. A Japanese print exhibition was hosted by Van Gogh in 1887.

Despite the far-reaching arms of Japan’s erotic art, its origin is undoubtedly and eternally spiritual. The formidable force of sexuality is seen in Shunga’s magnificently detailed and enlarged depictions of genitals; the viewer can’t help but lay his eyes upon them first. As Philip S. Rawson, the keeper of Eastern art at the University of Durham says: “The sexual engagement in the image is greater than the mere human actors.” And it is this intangible, abstract idea of sexual engagement inherited from ancient times speaking in each of these pieces. Izanagi and Izanami; Shiva and Shakti; Adam and Eve; and the cosmic unity of opposites continues to intrigue and excite us today.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
Contributing writer for The Artifice.

Want to write about Arts or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. Really cool article! It’s interesting how eroticism seems to be a unifying theme across art of different cultures/time periods.

  2. Sunni Rashad

    Would’ve loved some discussion about modern Japanese culture with regards to eroticism. That said, great job.

  3. Triston

    Interestingly (or not) whereas the Greeks decided to downscale male genitalia in their statues, Shunga shows genitalia vastly overscaled, make of that what you will

    • Not in Crete they didn’t there is a very popular assortment of statues ( and now tourists take home copies) of fertility statues with Wangs so big they go over the head of the man.

      It was abit of an eye opener when I visited as a child.

    • About 35 years ago my younger sister sent me and my parents a postcard from there of this very enormously “wanged” male – she must have laughed and I often wondered if both the Greek post office and Royal Mail staff did also!

    • Flaccid penises make a lot of sense for portraits and statues–portraits especially. I would imagine that even if someone were to try and paint a subject who is erect, they would have a hard time doing so.

  4. Modern pornography is very diverse and some are much better than others, and even though I’m a woman and a feminist, I don’t categorically reject “pornography” as mere “objectification”.

    But this type of art from Japan looks quite interesting.

  5. In ancient China there were similar forms of erotic art called “Chun Gong Tu” (literally “spring palace paintings”). There is even an erotic classic novel called “Jin Ping Mei”. (“The Plum in the Golden Vase”) Ancient Chinese and ancient Japanese forms of erotic art and literature share some common elements and themes.

    • I suppose the difference though is that Chinese prints were more didactic ‘sex manuals’ (often obsessed with the need for a man to preserve his qi) whereas these are just for amusement and the sheer hell off it.

      • Well, I wouldn’t say all ancient Chinese erotic art were of one particular form. It’s actually quite diverse, and there are many different types. Certainly there were forms of erotic art in ancient China which were not connected to “health and lifestyle instruction”, to utilise a modern phrase.

        Personally I actually think there is some truth to the idea in traditional Chinese medicine that excessive sex can have a negative impact on one’s health, but then the principle of traditional Chinese medicine is based on “balance” and sometimes sexual activity is considered to be good for one’s health as well. “Sex” is not considered to be a “sin” or only for the purpose of “reproduction” as some Western religions believe, but actually considered to be a good thing intrinsically speaking. As Confucius once said: “Both food and sex are innate human nature.” The idea is not really that particular ways to having sex are bad for one’s health, but that having sex too frequently might.

        It’s only among superstitious people who are trying to “preserve and refine qi” for some “magical” purposes that avoidance of sex (or just the avoidance of “ejaculation”) becomes a real obsession. (And yes erotic art/instruction manuals based on these religious ideas do exist as well) On the other hand, some religious schools of thought in China were actually sex-positive and considered it to have a positive spiritual significance, for instance certain forms of Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty.

        • natheeer

          Having spent a long time in China, I can state with a huge mount of certainty that Asian men have an incredibly patriarchal attitude to sex and women.

          I don’t pretend that Western men are all feminist supporting beacons of perfection, but China and Japan are full of KTV clubs, saunas and massage parlours where rich men pay for young girls. The whole attitude is that, when successful you have mistresses and even 2nd and third wives and it is only for men.

          • You should investigate the sheer variety and profusion of shunga a little more closely before presuming that it’s all done for male titillation.

            And while all that you say about male patriarchalism in Asia is true, that doesn’t prevent wealthy Japanese and Chinese women from enjoying their own private extra-marital lives on their own terms.

  6. I really like Shunga erotic art. Sex and art are mutually inclusive as Shenga illustrates most elegantly.

  7. I was a complete bookworm when I was a young nipper. Once I’d grown bored with mine I started sneaking a peak at the books in my parents collection, and one day came across a book called ‘Japanese Erotism.’ I couldn’t even pronounce the word ‘erotism,’ announcing to my brothers smugly it was ‘aero-tism.’ Anyway, the drawings I found in the book certainly made our eyes bulge. It also made us slightly scared of Japanese people and confused my parents, who couldn’t work out why I was suddenly too grown up for my own books and more interested in their book collection.

    • Elliana

      To get the best of both worlds, I can’t wait for the Shunga-inspired pornographic movie 😉

      • You could try The Realm of The Senses set in a later period but covers plenty of the same ground.

        Sexy kimonos, tea-houses and what-not.

        The only issue I have with all this fantastic ‘samurai-art-not-porn’ is that it, and the culture it came from has inspired some truly terrible things in modern Japanese society.

        Hostess bars – and though I won’t link you could search for ‘hentai tentacle’ on the internets.

        Lastly, the little islands of sexual paradise for upper class males shown in the art still inspire the harem fantasy’s of Japanese men.

        In isolation all these aspects of Japanese society are kinda, sexy, cool interesting etc. The problem I find is they don’t exist in isolation they mesh together with beliefs about gender that make your head hurt and real peoples lives a bit more crap.

    • Andreas

      Ha ha! – this is exactly what happened to me; my parents (or my Dad) had this book too. My goodness it was an eye-opener and I went back to it quite a few times! (just to make sure I was seeing what I was seeing). The pictures above are positively asexual compared to what is in this book!

  8. Shunga celebrates sex, yes — but it should be noted that it is not always about mutual pleasure. Rape was also depicted, as for example in this print by Toyokuni, made in 1824:


    • Terence

      Good grief! I suppose photographs of the same thing would be more disturbing… but only just.

      Were these intended as a form of graphic journalism or are they porn for psychopaths?

      • Most (typical) shunga probably showed consensual couples enjoying each other, but there was also a “sub-set” depicting fantasies and fetishes, some violent.

        Also, prints featuring sex acts were produced of the “horrible crime” variety, or historic/mythological events. Whether they could be classed as shunga I don’t know.

        Really, though I lived in Japan, I am not an expert in this area!

  9. Orville

    We shouldn’t compare Japanese prints to western art, they were published in great numbers and were for anyone who could afford them and at the time of publication, were not expensive for those people with a reasonable income.

    However, similar explicit sex in western art, even today draws vehement criticism. I have a friend who had an exhibition of similar sexual content vehemently criticised in Holland and totally rejected by galleries he had contacts with in Britain.

  10. OK, had a closer look at Shunga elsewhere on the web. Might have to revise my view a tad!

    Is it me, or do all the willies and vaginas look similar across different paintings?

    Imagine being a woman and coming home to schlongs that big every night….

  11. I remember finding one of these ripped to shreds in a bush when I was young.

  12. Of all the prints you could have used to illustrate this article you really have gone for the most vanilla. 🙂

    • I think it’s good. I’d be rather happy if my kids were reading The Artifice and not dallying all the time on Facebook …

  13. Have you ever noticed with these that – despite the subtlety and economy of the faces, the grace of the tangled limbs and the delicacy of the flowing robes – there’s always something decidedly detailed, substantial and meaty about the rendering of penis and vagina?

    I suppose it’s that the faces, limbs and robes are the appetizer – the sex organs very much the main course.

  14. Salazar

    The most we can say about this fairly primitive ‘art’ is that it has a certain antique interest.

    • Like most art, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Some people will find Shunga erotic, others just crude cartoons.

  15. Shunga was to Tokugawa Japan what net porn is to today’s society: It was mass produced, and consumed by the sizeable working class urban male population, who used it as a masturbation tool, much like internet porn is used today. Some shunga are certainly sensual, but others feature violence, cruelty and rape, just like today’s porn. There was also plenty of objectification of women going on – popular subjects for woodblock prints were courtesans; brothel guidebooks also sold well. In certain periods during the Tokugawa era, the regime made it the target of censorship and political repression.

    It’s hardly surprising that superficially it looks different to today’s porn; it was produced several centuries ago on the other side of the world. Consider that 1970s US porn already looks quaint by today’s standards.

  16. Gives the Seven Samurai a whole new aspect.

  17. Have you noticed that as the eyes in popular Japanese manga have grown, so naughty bits – once huge in Shunga – have pretty much vanished? Of course, this is in part due to Japan’s odd censorship laws, but there is an odd correlation between the two.

  18. Dinosaur

    i’d be really interested in a book covering erotic art all over the world and explaining just why it is that sex scares the genitalia out of everyone. There probably isn’t one country in the world that hasn’t outlawed graphic sex at one time or another. Why is it so scary?

    • Humberto

      It’s not “scary” – it is about a grossly mechanistic approach to something that is, or should be (for pleasure’s sake, too) anything BUT mechanistic.

  19. Their Yeddo (Edo) – era attitude to sex was that it was about fun and pleasure for anyone, with none of the nauseating prudery that the western powers, with their guilt-ridden, Victorian Christian mores brought to the country in the nineteenth century.

  20. The most important outcome of critical analyses of the works on display will be that undergraduates will, for once, attend an art history lecture and not fall asleep.

    Nor will they linger after the class ends, pestering the professor with silly questions, but will rush back to their residence halls to put into practice what they have learned.

  21. The pictures are at least more exciting than the medieval paintings of the Holy Virgin Mary.

    • Mary, maybe (and maybe not, sometimes): but some paintings of St Sebastian had to be removed from the church where they were displayed because of the affect they had on female (and probably some male) members of the congregation. There’s nothing unusual about erotic Christian art.

  22. Arabella

    As this stuff was made in the old red light districts for the red light districts of course it is pornography.

    • Bambino

      You need to do some reading on shunga. It has nothing to do with the brothel districts. They weren’t even making prints in the “red light districts”. Shunga were produced in the same workshops as ordinary prints, and were sold to the regular townspeople.

  23. Got a shunga book with great pictures. Hid it well from my kids who loved rumbling through the bookshelves.

  24. All “erotic art” is about solitary consumption and fantasy only tangentially related to sexual mores overall. What does this tell us about sexual life in pre-modern Japan? About as much as Lord of the Rings tells us about Anglo-Saxon Wessex.

  25. The perfect hairstyles in shunga are what interest me.

  26. Wonderful… Can’t wait to buy some of these prints.

  27. Golam Rabbani

    Erotic art is one of the core artistic forms of all major civilizations in human history. In the folk songs of Bengal, sexual engagement is celebrated as a flow of creative energy bonding two creative souls instead of two different sexes. Some paintings from the Hussain Shahi dynasty (1494-1538) of present Bangladesh represent the sexual act as a spiritual connection to nature. In those paintings the bodies are not painted as male or female with genital specifications rather they are shown as two human bodies submerged in natural landscapes while making love. The eco-centric folk songs are assumed to be the inspiration for these paintings.

  28. Fascinating article. Read it before. There’s an excellent book entitled Japanese Culture, which is written by Paul Varley.

  29. Eroticism in Japanese art might look vulgar from a distance but is truly elegant when you take a closer look. The Japanese have an admirable sense of displacing natural elements, like pine trees and rocks, in their art and making them symbolic of a greater meaning. Never knew the part about phallic imagery, though! If any of you reading this article are interested in erotic art, check out Korean art as well. I wouldn’t say there’s an abundance of erotic themes in Korean art, but there are indeed comical images like monks peeping at naked women.

  30. satheeh

    I love Japanese art work.

  31. Elpis1988

    Thanks for sharing this. I found it insightful. I find Japanese culture fascinating and this was a really interesting discussion of a part of it I have wanted to know more about.

Leave a Reply