“Japanese culture, once upon a time, encouraged and celebrated sex openly. Now we do so secretly.”
Kyota Ko

Shungas are windows to the sexually liberal lives of 17th to 19th century Japanese people, and a vital hint to solving the mysterious gap between the clean, polite and disciplined image of Japan and the fact that the keywords “Japanese” and “Hentai” became No. 1 and 2 (respectively) search words on Pornhub in 2019.

This article is R-rated, and will include photos of paintings with explicit images of sex.

Hello world! You are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko, and as a Japanese citizen born and raised in Japan, I was stricken just recently by utter shamefulness by the fact that in the past year I’ve been making podcasts about Japanese culture, I hadn’t covered a topic of paramount importance. I hadn’t talked about porn! And this a problem.

The Japanese influence on global porn

At a time each of us Earthlings live with 7.2 billion other fellow human beings, mega porn site Pornhub got 42 billion visits in 2019, and as team Earth, humanity uploaded 169 years worth of content onto Pornhub alone. Porn is a globally shared hobby. It unites almost all of us in one place. In Pornhub. It probably does a better job than the Olympics for that purpose.

And in 2019, the most searched keyword on Pornhub was the word “Japanese”. And there was a high representation of this keyword in Asian countries, especially in Japan. This, I would say, shows how enthusiastic Japan is and always has been about porn. 

And second place comes the keyword “Hentai”, which in case you are not familiar, refers to pornographic anime. “Hentai” is a Japanese word that means “pervert” and apparently it’s a commonly used term internationally in the world of porn. 

The three globally well-known words of Japanese origin that I could think of off the top of my head are Tsunami, Mottainai and Hentai. The last two rhyme and I don’t know what to feel about my home culture right now at this moment.

But this means the whole world is crazy over illustrated and animated porn. There are of course pornographic 3D animation of Pixar quality out there too, because the best technology of the time is always applied to porn in any day and age, and you will hear me make this point again later in this podcast. 

Shunga – artwork about sex and humor

UTAGAWA Toyokuni “Pocket mirror picture book”

So now that we know our place in the time-space of the porn galaxy, let us dive into this thorough discourse on early modern age Japanese pornography, which is commonly known as Shunga. 

Shungas are pornographic paintings that are actually considered to have high artistic value, not just because they are old, but because it was a genre of paintings almost all the top artists of Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries were dedicated to produce work in. If you know any Ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai, Hiroshige or Utamaro, they all made numerous Shungas. They all drew porn.

In fact it is said that a fourth of all Ukiyo-e paintings that ever existed were Shungas. It was a major genre. I’ll post some on my blog so you can see for yourself what they look like, and there, you might notice that most of them are pretty comical. 

For some reason Japan has associated sex with humor for as long as its history. I guess this not only goes for Japan, but it’s particularly evident in Japanese culture. 

Sex and reproduction were central topics in the earliest historical record of Japan called “Kojiki” and it implicitly says about how the first gods in Japanese mythology had a lot of sex to produce the millions of gods of Shintoism. It also has a scene where a god dances naked and other gods have a good laugh about it. 

So until the late 19th century, Japanese people seemed to have held a positive and lighthearted view on sex and porn. 

So many Shungas are actually supposed to make you giggle. There is this one famous Shunga of a gay samurai walking in on his bisexual boyfriend having sex with another person. 

FURUYAMA Moroshige – 男色秘戯画帖

So the cheating bisexual boyfriend is holding a woman with long hair from behind in a futon, but if you look carefully, the woman has the top of her head shaved, which means it’s not a she. It’s another man! So it’s a scene of a gay samurai walking in on his cheating bisexual samurai boyfriend having sex with a young man dressed like a woman. What in the world. 

Just by looking at the painting, you can hear the two in bed saying “Oh crap” as they meet eyes with the gay samurai. And you can easily imagine in the next moment the gay samurai will pull out his katana sword to kill both of them. I’ll put this Shunga up on the blog post for this podcast. If you’re curious, you can find the link to my blog in my podcast profile.

Gender in sex was very fluid especially within the samurai class in Japan back in time, but you just have to laugh how sexually liberal people were. You will be in loss of words seeing all the other, way-too-advanced sex life of Japanese people in history through Shungas. I’ll also put a link to Shunga catalogues on Amazon in case you want to secretly purchase one.

How Shungas came to be

HISHIKAWA Moronobu – “男女玉てばこ” (1688?)

Now Shungas are thought to have existed as far back as in the 8th century, probably even before that. They were all hand-drawn and therefore not mass produced until the 17th century and only the rich were able to get a hold of them. Porn used to be a luxury for the rich, just like pornographic paintings were targeting only the rich in for example Europe and India around the same time. 

So how did porn get itself mass-produced? Well, woodblock printing had been around for centuries, but they were primarily used for printing books, so just writing, sometimes with pictures. But then in the mid-17th century, during an era of peace called the Edo Period, a Japanese artist called HISHIKAWA Morinobu produced prints featuring pictures only, therefore he was the creator of Ukiyo-e paintings, and this becomes an instant hit. Most people prefered looking at pictures over reading books, just like now. 

Shungas are everyday life made into pop entertainment

KATSUSHIKA Hokusai – “Waves and plover”

The word “Ukiyo” means, in Japanese, the hardships of ever-changing life, and it includes a connotation of “well, if life’s so hard, it’s better if we try to enjoy it.” And the word “e” means picture. So put them together and “Ukiyo-e” is a printed painting that depicts people’s everyday life, and sex played an integral role in enjoying life. And that is why, I think, Shungas naturally became a major sub genre of Ukiyo-e. 

So in Ukiyo-e and Shungas, ordinary people were the most common subjects drawn. 

In fact it is said that over 80% of all Shungas were drawings of ordinary people having sex at home. It was like a little window that allowed you to have a peek at what’s happening in other people’s houses at night. Or day! It was the Bossa Nova of Japan – everyday life taken as the subject and made into pop entertainment. 

When a huge collection of Shungas were exhibited in Finland in 2002, it’s said that the focus was on trying to figure out what the relationship between the subjects having sex were, based on what was drawn and also what was written. Shungas usually have words written around the characters to show what they’re saying, a bit like manga, only that there were no speech bubbles back then. 

So visually, it’s just one scene of sexual intercourse, but because the characters have lines – and they can be pretty long – many Shungas, combined with the viewer’s imagination, create a certain time-space. 

The story behind the Shunga boom

Now to talk a bit about the evolution of Shungas, before the peaceful Edo Period, there were battles going on everywhere in Japan almost daily, between this samurai lord and that samurai lord, and this was a time before Shungas became available to ordinary people. 

Back then, samurai warriors would bring expensive hand-drawn Shungas when they went out on war campaigns and hide them under their armors. It was thought that carrying around a Shunga would bring about victory and therefore survival, so later on after Japan entered an age of peace and porn became entertainment for ordinary people, everyone bought and collected Shunga for general good luck.

But I’d like to cast doubt onto this story. I think it’s abbreviating a few links in the chain. I’m not a historian, but strictly relying on logic, I theorize that the full story goes like this: 

Whenever samurais participated in war campaigns, it meant they had to be away from home and therefore away from their wives for months because they had to travel to the battlefield on horseback and foot. So there’s no encounter with anything sexual for a very long time. 

So they hid a Shunga or two under their armors, not for the sake of good luck, but for the sake of PRACTICAL USE!

And naturally only the samurais who didn’t die in battle would come back with Shungas, because otherwise neither the samurai or the Shunga would come back. So a jinx was formed, that samurais who go to battle with a Shunga tend to win or at least survive. 

Time flies and later in the 17th century, Shungas started being mass-produced and bookstores started selling them. During this time bookstores visited their clients’ homes to show what they had to offer. There’s actually an old illustration showing how this was done so I’ll post it up on the blog entry for this podcast. 

Bookstore salesperson showing Shungas at a client’s house

So the bookstore salesperson would show the latest Shungas and recommend them to his clients, but clients would be hesitant to buy them because it’s embarrassing. Japanese people in the early modern age are thought to have been much more open to sex than compared to now, but still, I think not everyone could buy porn with a confident smile. 

So I think the jinx came in handy as a convenient excuse for people to camouflage their real purpose of buying Shungas. So they could tell the salesperson “Well I guess I’ll buy one for good fortune’s sake. For good fortune’s sake, of course. What else?” I bet 500 yen that this totally happened.

Everyone collected Shungas

UTAGAWA Toyokuni – “Call of the geese on a night’s meeting”

Now it must be pointed out that both men and women of all classes consumed Shunga. So ladies and gentlemen of royalty, ladies and gentlemen of the samurai class, and ladies and gentlemen of pretty much all regular people bought and enjoyed these pornographic illustrations. 

Shungas were even purchased as wedding gifts because they give you an idea of how sex is had. Parents of young women would pack a Shunga book for their daughters on the day they set out to be married to their fiancés. You know, maybe they cried and hugged at the front door on the day of the marriage with tears in their eyes, but the parents snuck porn in their daughter’s suitcase.

The people drawn in Shungas often have sex in very acrobatic positions because it’s entertainment. Everything’s a bit exaggerated. So it’s said that young couples of the Edo Period would hurt themselves trying to replicate what they saw. Shungas and humor are inseparable.  

Now almost all Shungas published during the Edo Period came in a booklet of 12 pages, meaning 12 Shungas. It was like a music album with 12 songs. So the Shunga paintings you would see on the Internet or museums are actually only one of a dozen. It’s estimated that there were over 2,300 Shunga books made, and to count the number of Shungas you multiply that by 12. So you can imagine how abundant Shungas were back in the day. 

Shungas and technological advances in printing

ISODA Koryusai – “Untitled album”

And printing technology advanced very quickly thanks to the popularity of Ukiyo-e and Shungas. Early forms of color woodblock printing had already been invented in China and in Europe by the 17th century, but Japan invented its own version in the 18th century. An Ukiyo-e artist called SUZUKI Harunobu orchestrated a cross-functional organization consisting of 3 teams. 

One was the painter who designed the Ukiyo-e by drawing one on paper, another was the sculptor who carefully crafted the woodblock so that it became exactly the same as the painting, and the third was the printer who printed the Ukiyo-e onto paper using the woodblock and various shades of paint. Together they created the colorful Ukiyo-e paintings we know today, and in the course, each team further honed their skills; for example printers eventually figured out how to print gradations. 

It was a serious, serious collaborative effort among the top, expert craftsmen of the time.

And a fourth of all their work was porn. Along with all the other kinds of Ukiyo-e, Shungas became increasingly beautiful, and its popularity became increasingly more. 

The end of Shungas

TSUKIOKA Settei – “Shunga scroll of the four seasons”

And now if I could move on to pointing out what kind of sex was illustrated, almost all the porn genres you can imagine were explored in Shunga. 

There were straight, gay, lesbian, three-way, orgies, cougar, mature, interracial, dildos, tentacles, step mom, maid. Anyway, so sexual exploration was done at an alarming level in Japan, and the top Ukiyo-e artists worked diligently to depict sexual practices of ordinary people. 

But then obviously people were getting too excited and things were getting out of hand, so the government makes it illegal to publish Shungas as early as 1722, but Ukiyo-e artists kept drawing Shungas by not officially claiming their work, publishers secretly kept publishing Shungas and people kept buying them. 

It was not until 1868 that production of Shungas finally halted. The biggest goal of Japan at this time was to modernize like the western superpowers, and the Japanese government thought that allowing pornography to be readily available would lead to Japan being seen as an underdeveloped culture. 

They thought it was embarrassing, and as a matter of fact, from the point of view of cultures with roots in Christian values for example, Japanese people being so open to sex and enjoying Shunga as entertainment must have been seen as absurd. 

So hefty fines were imposed on publishers that published any Shunga, and Japanese people slowly started to view porn as taboo, and that is how the business of Shunga came to an end. 

Sex, porn, and Japanese people now

The idea that sex is taboo haunts Japanese people’s lives still now, and talking about sex or porn openly is frowned upon. But, as I told you early on in this podcast, Japan is like one of the top contributors to Pornhub both in terms of viewership and content provision. Porn is just huge in Japan. We haven’t done away with the Japanese DNA of the Edo Period and it secretly lives beneath our polite, disciplined facade. 

If you’ve seen mainstream Japanese porn videos, you should already know that they are censored. Japan still formally sees sex as taboo, while practically, porn has a solid place in many if not most people’s lives. 

I mean, even some Japanese women have little secrets. The manga genre of BL, which is an acronym for “Boy’s Love”, has a very solid market in Japan. BLs are soft to hardcore porn mangas about gay couples. The characters are usually super good looking men and they fall in love with each other and overcome obstacles, and stuff. And the dominant consumers of this genre are Japanese women. The Yano Research Institute estimated in 2016 that there should be no less than 700,000 BL consumers in Japan and a market size of 214 million dollars. It’s an up and rising industry. 

And as a Japanese male, I would also like to point out and commemorate the immense creativity that goes into the direction and production of Japanese porn videos. Because videos need to be censored, porn video productions have come up with so many different ways to entice viewers without explicitly showing what’s going on down there. 

I have heard people from other countries finding it odd that Japanese female pornstars make a lot of exaggerated high toned noise. And my guess about why that is so is: it’s to compensate for the censorship. We can’t really see what’s going on so the pornstars need to use their voices to provide aid audibly. I think that’s why. You’re seeing the Japanese spirit of hospitality in action. 

I’m not sure if Japanese porn videos will be evaluated highly in a century or two just like Shungas did long after the industry died, but the sheer volume of output and the bottomless creativity we see in them, I think, remind us a part of our true cultural identity. Japanese culture, once upon a time, encouraged and celebrated sex openly. Now we do so secretly. 

Anyway, thank you so much for listening. I have tons more of stories to tell you about Japanese culture so please subscribe to this podcast channel, take a look at my blog or instagram, or Like the Metro-classic Japanese Facebook page to get new content daily.