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Shunga secrets bared between the covers

by Victoria James

Special To The Japan Times

It looks like a classic coffee-table book, a hefty hardback of more than 500 pages and almost as many color illustrations — but be careful who you ask round for coffee if you’re displaying the latest volume from the British Museum. That’s because it’s the lavish accompaniment to its new exhibition, “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art.” Almost every one of those hundreds of pictures, including some in glorious, meter-long fold-out, is an example of the titular Japanese erotic art of “spring pictures,” or shunga.

Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art, Tim Clark et al, The British Museum

But this book is far more than a mere museum catalogue; it both reflects and expands upon the scholarship that is evident in the exhibition itself (reviewed on Oct. 8). As well as a treat for art lovers and those interested in Japanese culture, this volume seems likely to become the standard reference work on shunga for years to come.

It is wonderfully comprehensive. “Everything you always wanted to know about shunga but were afraid to ask” might be a good alternative subtitle, with essays tackling everything from “Popular Cults of Sex Organs in Japan” to “Erotic Books as Luxury Goods.” No fewer than 35 scholars have contributed, from institutions as far afield as Mexico City, Barcelona and Vancouver. Shunga is still considered a cultural embarrassment by some Japanese, but it is a subject of global academic interest at elite institutions.

You don’t need a degree, though, to understand and appreciate the bite-size essays in “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art.” This is scholarship at its most approachable. It makes no assumptions of prior knowledge, kicking off with an essay titled “What was Shunga?” by the London curators of the exhibition, Timothy Clark and C. Andrew Gerstle (they also have two co-curators from Kyoto). This seeks to place shunga within “the extensive libidinous economy and advanced consumer culture of the world’s largest city, Edo,” in the period to which the city gives its name, 1600-1868.

Clark and Gerstle point out that the more than two centuries of national seclusion under the Tokugawa shoguns, when the Japanese were not permitted to travel outside the country, meant that “whole systems of behavior and etiquette surrounding sex had evolved that were distinctly different from even Japan’s closest Asian neighbours.” Indeed, one Korean emissary in 1719 reported home, scandalized, that the Japanese made love with lights on at night, and carried shunga in their kimono sleeves.

Kimonos weren’t the only place shunga was stowed, according to Yukari Yamamoto in her essay “Traditional Uses of Shunga.” Along with shunga’s obvious function as a sexual stimulus for both solo and partnered pleasure, including as instructional material for brides (who one hopes were reassured that the depiction of genitalia was not to scale), the drawings were also credited with talismanic powers of protection in combat and placed inside armor and armor chests. Indeed, one of the genre’s numerous alternative names is kachi-e (victory picture). Yamamoto notes that, incredibly, this practice continued into the modern era, as reported by scholar Kazuo Hanasaki, who served in the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45.

Challenging questions are not left unexamined, with essays on the presence in shunga of violence, of children and of what can only charitably be described as the grotesque. Only the last of these gets a substantial look-in at the British Museum exhibition, in a discreet display tucked into one corner, but all three are given considered assessment here. (When asked if this weighting between exhibition and catalogue was deliberate, curator Timothy Clark said: “We do feel it is very important to raise these issues in the catalogue to avoid presenting an overly-sanitized view of shunga as a whole,” while explaining that the exhibition was more sparing in its selection of images so as not “to be offensive to our audiences.”)

On the subject of children, at least, the verdict is broadly reassuring. Youngsters are only rarely featured as sexual protagonists, and seemingly never at an early age. Indeed, there is often humor in the inclusion of children in shunga, as in one scene in which a couple in coitus are simultaneously offering an array of toys and distractions to their small son who has disturbed them in the act — a scenario that parents from all cultures and historical periods would surely identify with.

Violence is more pervasive, and Kazutaka Higuchi of Tokyo’s Mitsui Memorial Museum struggles to frame aggression within a genre also termed warai-e, (laughing pictures). Citing the depiction of a young girl resisting a seducer in a teahouse, he remarks, “In pictures such as these, although there is coercion in evidence, at the time they were considered to be comically erotic stories and therefore fell within the then permissible boundaries of ‘laughter.’” Higuchi doesn’t, though, know what to do with such brutal scenes as the rape of a bound and gagged woman. This essay’s subject matter, and its author, might have been better served by the license of an article longer than most in this volume.

It’s also a shame that there is no discussion of shunga’s relationship to Japan’s infamous contemporary erotic manga and anime — not least because such material is often more familiar to international audiences today than its historical precursor. It is surely not coincidental that “underground” erotic manga sprang up in the 20th century, a time when shunga itself was vigorously suppressed.

But these are modest complaints set against the scale of the achievement of “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art.” This book is as ambitious and enjoyable as the British Museum’s exhibition itself, and both have set the standard for this subject for years to come. If the coffee table is too public a spot to display your copy, it would equally grace any bookshelf — or even the bedside table.