December 2, 2023


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Shunga secrets bared between the covers

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Victoria James reviews Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art in The Japan Times

shungaIt 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.

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.

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