The good news is that for two years in succession Tokyo has staged shunga (erotic woodblock print) exhibitions — one at Toyo Bunko in 2014 and the ongoing show at Eisei Bunko — and there doesn’t appear to have been a marked surge in moral decadence or signs of civilization crumbling.
A few weeks ago I noticed crowds of curious attendees reveling in graphic depictions of sex, and it reminded me of how the West often obsesses over celibacy syndrome in Japan, which is portrayed as an unusually undersexed nation. Have the Japanese strayed so far from their rich and uninhibited traditions of sexuality?
The Western media appears to be fixated on how much the Japanese are getting — or not getting, as the case may be. Surveys about Japan’s low fertility rate spark febrile speculation about a low appetite for sex even though similarly low fertility rates in Spain or Slovakia don’t attract such vacuous analysis. Earlier this year, another survey suggested that half of all Japanese adults are not engaging in sex regularly, unleashing yet another cascade of sweeping broadsides that seem to overlook the fact that Japan’s sex industry is thriving in a nation with a bumper crop of love hotels, sex toy shops and numerous service providers covering a wide range of fantasies and preferences.
However, we read more about Japan’s geek-culture “herbivores” addicted to online pursuits unable to venture out of the virtual and get real. Cue the breathless story about high-end love dolls marketed as “Dutch Wives,” a curious appellation also used in Indonesia to refer to long round pillows often placed between the knees while resting.
The media recently reported that SoftBank has warned customers not to have sex with Pepper the robot it sells. It seemed far-fetched, especially given the stiff competition in the love doll niche, but sensible given that Pepper is delicate, hard plastic and a diminutive 120 cm tall. I suspected that it was a clever marketing strategy, alerting potential customers to features they might not have even dreamed of.
My robotologist friend told me, however, that the media got the wrong end of this salacious tale, explaining that SoftBank was worried that poor Pepper would be used to stream lewd acts, connect strangers for indecent purposes and engage in other sexual businesses. The company was also not amused by an artist who unveiled Peppai, complete with breasts on her LCD, who was used to entice “perverts” to disrobe and fondle her as she breathlessly “complained” while expressing arousal. This “pervert hunting” version of Pepper would then photograph and post images of the gropers.
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), master artists were known for their lavish ukiyo-e woodblock prints that depicted scenery and society in vibrant colors, but many also catered to the market for sexually explicit representations with shunga, which were used for inspiration, laughs and instruction. Despite a culture known for self-effacing understatement and a Zen aesthetic of “less is more,” in the world of shunga it’s all about size, with massive genitalia popping up all over and even penetrating paper screens in search of solace. And women’s genitalia are presented as equally lavish, usually bushy and gushing, with erotic aesthetics also dictating luxuriant underarms, very far indeed from the depilatory obsessions that now prevail.
Perhaps only in Bhutan is Japan bested in glorifying genitalia, as farmhouses are often decorated with dueling spewing, blood-engorged, 2-meter-long phalli placed on flanking sides of a doorway to ward off evil spirits. Well, at least that was what I was told, as I was handed a $500 estimate to make my Tokyo residence easily locatable.
Yet in modern Japan there has been an incongruously priggish marginalization of shunga. Nearly a decade ago, the Mori Museum — situated in the eponymous tower 53 floors above Tokyo, with glorious wraparound views — held a show featuring several of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of nude men, full frontals 3 to 4 meters high hanging in the capacious rooms. I was drawn to a smaller curtained off area with a sign barring entry to anyone under the age of 18, which pricked my interest given all that was on display in the public areas. Entering the darkened room, my expectations were quickly doused as it contained only a few shunga and some kama sutra miniatures. Well, the line has to be drawn somewhere, but it was the belly-laugh moment of the visit.
Over the years, whenever a museum displayed a few forlorn shunga, it was always the same: screened off and kept apart. Nobody lingered or laughed — some scenes are truly funny and meant as such — treating shunga as if it were about as exciting as viewing mounted butterflies or stamps.
The welcome news came earlier this year that, following the success of a major shunga exhibition at London’s British Museum in 2013, a show featuring 120 sexually explicit works would take place at the Eisei Bunko Museum in the leafy environs of an old daimyo house in the capital’s Mejiro neighborhood. Shunga was once banned by shogunal edict as obscene, and the stigma apparently lingers, as 10 museums reportedly turned down the opportunity to host the exhibition.
The Hosokawa clan’s sprawling mansion is an impressive setting, but the rooms are rather cramped for the hordes of visitors that have been descending on this remote facility heretofore known for ceramics and rare documents. Clearly there is a massive public appetite for shunga, which this exhibition has obviously whetted. I was not prepared, however, for the cheek-by-jowl, elbow-to elbow viewing, as the line ever so slowly wended its way from room to room, upstairs and down.
Nonetheless, the queue did afford chances to eavesdrop. An iconic scene of a maiden being ravished by an octopus attracted quite a crowd of lingering onlookers tittering, pointing and enjoying what they saw. A prim 50-something couple in front of me unexpectedly erupted into laughter when peering at another print. On closer inspection I saw that it was the cover of a sex manual by Takehara Shunchosai from 1776 titled “Makura Doji Nukisashi Manben Tamaguki,” and it had a memorably evocative English caption: “Pillow Book for the Young: All You Need to Know About How the Jeweled Rod Goes In and Out.” It reminded me of the ancient frescoes in the ruins of Pompei in Italy, where newlyweds were taken to get a sense of the basics, along with some kinkier options.
The current exhibition brims with lascivious scenes that leave little unexplored, including ladies in waiting lending a hand, orgies, onanism, voyeurism and illicit dalliances. But perhaps nothing on display is more exquisite than 1826’s “Ehon Kaidan Yoru no Tono” by Utagawa Kunisada — “Picture Book: Tales of Pussy in the Palace at Night.”
Perhaps the multigenerational crowds will awaken other museums to the possibilities of celebrating prurient traditions.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.