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Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art

Judyta Frodyma

Shunga – sex and pleasure in Japanese art
British Museum
3 October 2013 – 5 January 2014

That Japan has a rich cultural underworld of sex and pleasure should not come as a surprise to anyone—and the Samurai underground art of Shunga is no exception to the rule. Woodblock prints, paintings and scrolls dating from 1600-1900 and depicting a variety of sexual positions are on display at the British Museum’s current exhibition. Called by other reviewers ‘the most important exhibition of the year’ and a ‘joyful celebration’ of ‘artistic sensibility and imagery that leaves nothing to the imagination’, it has made headlines that question the difference between art, erotica, and pornography.

However, the exhibition, like many of the prints themselves for that matter, leaves plenty to the imagination. Shunga, meaning ‘spring’, is a type of ukiyo-e, or ‘picture of the floating world’ and is often based around the four seasons. The pictures depict couples, almost exclusively male and female, from different aspects of Japanese life, class and age—from dock workers to ordinary people to courtesans. These couples are shown in the most intimate of positions, often unrealistically contorted, with enlarged, engorged, fleshy genitalia (often not placed correctly on their bodies, though always anatomically correct). In most images, the rest of the bodies of the lovers are left either snow white, clothed gorgeously in silk prints, or merely suggested (no breasts, for example, or no nipples), as if to emphasize the sexual act and de-sexualise the body (apparently, because the Japanese had long desexualised the naked body due to their penchant for naked steam baths). The detailing of these images is impeccable: from delicate pink and purple veins on the penis to individual hairs around the vulva, some even wetted from excitement.

The exhibition’s curators repeatedly highlighted the connection between Shunga and humour. And indeed, there were plenty of images that evoked a chuckle (though few people other than myself permitted themselves one—the British Museum is a Serious Place): a scroll depicting a penis competition with entrants’ members so large they need tables to rest on; a little frog blankly observing a woman get into a bath, full vagina exposed; a kitten, shielding his eyes from the copulating couple; or perhaps the most grotesque of all the prints, hairy Europeans at the act. The use of humour, however, denotes a tactic in De Certeau’s terms; a means of coping or grasping with the intimacy of sex in a public context through one of the only ways to make it acceptable—by making it funny. Humour picks at the underlying beliefs: a ‘funny’ depiction of a wife pulling her husband’s hair and kicking him in the rear while he penetrates another woman speaks to the socially acceptable yet not accepted practice of taking on a lover or prostitute.

As a generation, we like to see representations of sex that are ‘correct’: that is to say, liberal-minded, accepting, non-discriminatory and above all, non-prescriptive. This attitude, still very much in the making, poses a problem only when it is used to filter the past, especially to try to affirm that such a mindset has always been current. Despite a vast collection and a broad range of subjects, the exhibition fell into precisely this mistake by attempting to confirm our modern-day ideas with those of seventeenth-century Japan. Indeed, in the attempt to make sex seem culturally accepted—monogomy was not exactly prized—the emphasis is laid on pleasure and lack of guilt. Yet the collection, for the most part, is very hetero-normative, with only one example of oral sex (though the missus did not like it) and only a few of male-male encounters between younger and older Samurai. And, of course, there is Hokusai’s famous octopus. There’s a case of sex toys and dildos, but again these constitute only a minor part of the exhibition. Perhaps this is because most of the sex was in fact male-female vaginal penetration.

The exhibition serves not merely to bring these prints together and out in the open, but also to discuss their reach and purpose, from household treasures to sex manuals. The curators do a wonderful job of presenting an explanation of each print, including translations of the ‘pillow talk’ that appears behind many of the lovers (they were a chatty bunch) and guiding the eye toward details that distinguished features of similar prints. They are careful also to acknowledge and distinguish between Shunga and the sexual slavery that occurred in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), drawing attention to the problems with any sexual trade, as well as to changes in legislation regarding the prints. But overall, they bring to the forefront the intersection of art, or fantasy, with the everyday in a manner that has been now lost to photography.

Judyta Frodyma is reading for a DPhil in English at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.