Kitagawa Utamaro, Lovers in the upstairs room of a teahouse, from Poem of the Pillow (1788)

Japanese erotic works and the world of Kitagawa Utamaro

Matthew Wilcox explores the art of shunga

Japanese culture is the subject of the Barbican Gallery in London’s autumn season, and with a major show of sensual and explicit Japanese woodblock prints on display at Ikon gallery in Birmingham, Matthew Wilcox takes a look at the fascination with Japanese erotic art and its cultural context.


Japanese erotic art was first displayed in England in 1615, when “certaine lascivious bookes and pictures” made a brief appearance in London. They were promptly burnt. 

To this day, the Japanese attitude to the depiction of sex has a reputation like that of no other country. Indeed a thread of eroticism runs through Japanese culture to its very origins: according to early legend, Japan was created when the deity Izanagi thrust his 'heavenly spear' into the churning primordial seas. Withdrawing it, the salty drops that fell from the tip spread and hardened across the water's surface, forming the first islands. 

Eroticism appears in Japanese print as early as the 11th century: in The Tale of Genji separated lovers tear their clothing to strips to write urgent love poetry to each other. The Edo Period (1603-1868), of which Kitagawa Utamaro, an eighteenth century Japanese artist - whose woodprint works of women are currently the subject of an exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery (until 14 November) – was part, though more mercantile in spirit, was no exception.

One of Japan’s greatest artists, it is of little surprise that Utamaro (1753-1806) supplemented his income with a neat line in risqué prints and paintings - it was to the world to which the artist belonged. In the long peace that followed the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate feudal regime and the end of Japan’s civil wars, the booming merchant class brought a new vibrancy to Japanese culture. It was Edo (now Tokyo) that was chosen as the capital for the new regime, and what had been a small fishing village was soon brimming with the thousands that made up the machinery of government, and the various industries that arose to serve their needs. 

By the early 1700s, more than a million people were crammed into the city. Unsurprisingly, with large numbers of young men quartered together for months at a time - Edo’s other name was ‘city of bachelors’ - a roaring trade in illicit sex flared up. To regulate this development, the new government established dedicated pleasure quarters on the edges of the city. Tradition has it that Utamaro was born in a teahouse in the city, and his most famous prints are largely set in the Yoshiwara, the sprawling pleasure quarters on the outskirts of Edo.

The beautiful images of women, known as Bijinga, for which Utamaro is most well known, might have served as mementos or advertisements for the fleeting pleasures of particular habitués of the Floating World. The more sexually explicit pictures were known as shunga, or ‘spring pictures’, an innocuous enough name until one notes that the Japanese word for prostitute, baishun, means to sell spring.

Shunga was intended for people who, because of limited time or money, were unable to visit the pleasure quarters. But the paintings, prints and books came to illustrate the new concept of life and the passions that erupted after being repressed for centuries. That is not to say that Japan was a permissive or liberal society: there are a number of apocryphal stories intended to justify their possession - they were reputed to safeguard against fire, or bring protection to young samurai. And Utamaro made the mistake of producing illustrations for a racy historical novel that satirised the love life of one of the most important progenitors of the regime. He was sentenced and probably imprisoned. The experience crushed him, and just two years later, in 1806, he died.

Almost all of Japan’s great painters produced shunga - for Utamaro it was the norm among his 18th century peers and was considered no more special a genre than any other. But what distinguishes the artist is the subtlety and superlative visible attention to detail. Utamaro's prints display an unmatched mastery that, uniquely, brought him fame within his own lifetime. Like in The Tale of Genji, the fabrics thrill - draped, wrapped, askew, delicately translucent, concealing, or absent. The art devoted to such erotic subjects underwent a stylistic evolution, reflected in the changes in the society of the day. Utamaro and other artists, including Kiyonaga and Eishi, represented the world of the pleasure districts at their highest degree of artistic, social and aesthetic refinement, and these great courtesans remain the exceptional talent of an industry regarded as distinctly unexceptional.

Today attitudes to sex and its depiction in Japan are still regularly sensationalised. While the Edo pleasure quarters may be a distant memory, Japan is still a byword for a certain kind of exoticism. While shunga is rarely seen outside of museums and books like Poem of the Pillow and Other Stories, its modern-day equivalent: cartoon eroticism in Manga and anime, has continued to attract an enthusiastic international following.


Matthew Wilcox is a freelance journalist. Since 2003 he has been a regular visitor to Japan, having studied in the literature department at Kumamoto University.