Japan is both overwhelmingly modern and traditional at the same time. This does not just apply to the amalgamation of skyscrapers and ancient Shinto shrines in cities like Kyoto, but also on a more sociological level. The matter of sexuality in Japan is one of the first things that come to mind.
Traditionally a sexually open society
Sexuality in Japan developed separately from that of mainland Asia, as Japan did not adopt the Confucian view of marriage, in which chastity is highly valued. Monogamy in marriage is less important in Japan, and married men often seek pleasure from courtesans. Prostitution in Japan has a long history, and became especially popular during the Japanese economic miracle, as evening entertainments were tax-deductible!
The Art of Shunga
Historically, pornography in Japan may have begun at the start of the Edo period (1603 – 1868) as erotic artwork referred to as shunga that was typically done on woodblock prints. Shunga literally means “spring pictures”. “At its best shunga celebrates the pleasures of lovemaking, in beautiful pictures that present mutual attraction and sexual desire as natural and unaffected” Tim Clark, curator of “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese art”
Mass produced during the Edo period shunga offered sexuality a shameless visual platform. Shunga depicted sexual pleasure that included both heterosexuality and homosexuality, each not only acknowledged but also encouraged. Surprisingly prior the Edo Period there was no Japanese word for female sexuality, and Shunga changed this with the depiction of female pleasure including lesbianism.
Shunga was an essential part of Japanese society
Shunga had functions beyond its aesthetic appeal. Its primary use would have involved viewing and sharing the paintings or books with close friend or sexual partners. Like the Indian Kama Sutra the Shunga images were also used to provide sexual education for young couples. While shunga was chiefly commissioned by men, it has been found among the dowry goods presented to a Japanese bride, suggesting that it was also highly valued by women.
Most shunga was created by woodblock artists from the popular school ukiyo-e, ‘pictures of the floating world,’ a genre of painting that mainly illustrated life’s pleasures that was mass-produced as prints. Surprisingly traditional painters also produced a large quantity of shunga including members of the Kano School, known for their innovative secular paintings.
Samurai were seen as the keepers of morality in Japan. Shunga was both commissioned and accepted by the samurai as a pleasurable cultural pursuit, and thus the whole of Japanese society enjoyed shunga.
There was also an element of humour to shunga, which sometimes referred as warai-e or “laughing picture”. Shunga works are artefacts of an era in Japan where attitudes about sex were freer. Sex was seen as an everyday natural activity without shame and often was the centre of amusement.
Sex and Erotic Art in early Japan
By the Edo period in the early 17th to mid 19th centuries, there had been a long history of erotic art and secular sexual expression in Japan, which meant that shunga was nothing new. Prehistoric societies had developed phallic worship in connection with their reliance on agriculture and Japan’s creation myths are based on human-like sexual procreation. Throughout the centuries, the phallus and phallus shaped objects (for example, mushrooms) had been prominent figures in carvings, could be found in shrines, festivals, and along roadways, and were traditionally and superstitiously related to good luck, health and longevity.
What allowed for such an openness of sexual imagery and expression was the lack of any strict religious code that controlled sexual behaviour. Unlike in the West, which was dominated by a strict Judeo-Christian ideology, there was no moral shame and stigma surrounding sex or the production of erotic images in Japan – only a stringent class system based on Confucianism that dictated deference to status and appreciation of personal space.
Sex in Japan did not take on any ‘mythical’ or religious significance as it did in India and China. Furthermore, humour and wit had developed over the centuries as a common part of sexuality and was incorporated in the broader culture via allusions, euphemisms, sexually related stories and poetry. These and other cultural and religious factors allowed sex to be seen as a more naturalistic, enjoyable experience between partners, which in turn has produced a wide array of acceptable sexual behaviours in modern Japan including same-sex partners, and sexually related products such as sex toys, manuals, and even a chain of sex stores.
By the time of the Edo Period, the normalcy and humour found in sex, highly developed forms of sexual expressions, and the lack of moral or religious control all translated into an early modern culture that allowed shunga to flourish as a genre of popular art and sex to be open, fun and easily available.
From sexual openness to repression
Japan’s sexual freedom was a revelation to Europe, particularly its artists. Painters such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas and Picasso found fertile ground in Shunga imagery. As Japan sought modernisation and to be in line with ‘modern’ western social norms, the Meiji Government banned shunga in the early 20th century, becoming taboo within Japan. As Japan sought sexual repression Europe sought sexual liberation!
When Shunga was flourishing in Japan, in Christian Europe at the time shunga would have been deeded pornographic. Shunga is an impressive, unique tradition of pre-modern erotic art. It serves as testament to a once uninhibited, open-minded society that offered artists opportunities to express originality and unbridled emotion.
Celebrating Shunga Today
The history, humour and accomplishments of shunga are explored at the British Museum in Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art. The exhibition looks at Japanese art like no other. Explicit and beautifully detailed the works on display are between the years 1600 and 1900, and such works continue today to influence manga, anime and Japanese tattoo art. The exhibition sheds new light on this sexuality explicit art form from Japanese social and cultural history. Parental guidance advised for visitors under 16.
The 48 Japanese sexual positions
If you have ever wondered how they do it elsewhere in the world, a recent Durex Ad may have caught your eye. It introduced some acrobatic positions within decidedly Canadian names: the ‘maple cinnamon twist’ and ‘the Niagara fall’ (the Canadian side, we are assuming).
There is not a lot of research on the top sex positions in different countries. Sex surveys tend to focus on other aspects of our time between the sheets (such as sexual satisfaction and frequency). That said, the Durex Sexual Wellbeing survey which questioned 26,000 people across 26 different countries does have some interesting insights into how different nations have sex. Overall worldwide less than 50% of people are sexually satisfied and as one gets older and has sex less often, dissatisfaction increases, particularly with males. The world has obviously become more sexually repressed.
The following images are illustrations of Japan’s 48 sexual positions – the “48 Ways” (shijuuhatte). These sex positions are inspired by sumo wrestling moves going back centuries. During the Edo period, the word 48 arms-hands started to be imbued with sexual meaning – “all the basic sexual techniques”.
Below, Japanese Durex condom commercial teaches you 48 ways to have sex with a wrestler. It’s kinda a humorous play to watch, so enjoy it!
Choosing sexual partners in Japan
Most men are attracted to younger and good-looking women, since it is believed that the women will be fertile and prodigy will also be attractive. It’s human instinct, and only moral education can try to repress this instinct. East Asian religions (Confucianism, Taoism, Shinoism, Buddihism) do not teach strong moral principles or prohibitions regarding sex. In fact sexual restrictions and the associate shame or guilt with sex is typically a Judeo-Christian or Islamic characteristic.
In modern Japan the Western desire by males for big breasts and shapely hips may also be based upon a subconscious belief of greater female fertility but the overriding influence has been Western film culture. For women in Japan, and the world over, power has always been a significant element when choosing a male partner. Power and sexual desire often go hand in hand since a powerful male can easily support and protect a family.
Shyness and nudity in Japanese culture
Japanese are known for being shy and reserved, but with bathing most are comfortable with nudity. Why? There’s a phrase in Japanese that explains some of it. Hadaka no tsuikiai or “naked fellowship” – it basically means everyone is all the same when they are naked. It’s a part of any open relationship with friends or in business, going to bath is a place where you literally can’t hide anything!
In the Youtube video below, there is the episode at a local sento (public bath) in Tokyo’s Edogawa ward. It’s called “Taka no Yu” and is located in Shinozaki, 20 minutes from central Tokyo. It’s been operating since the 1950’s but the culture is changing in Japan and patrons have been decreasing annually since the 1990’s. Most younger people are becoming westernised, sexual repressed and embarrassed about their nudity. They now choose to stay home and take a dip in their private baths. Many old local sentos are going out of business because of it. However Tokyo is still loaded with lots of fantastic and historical public baths. Definitely check one out when you visit; it’s one place where you can experience traditional Japan!
The video also shows a trip to one of Japan’s famous onsen resort towns, Minakami in neighbouring Gumma prefecture. Takaragawa Onsen is friendly place for foreigners where both international and Japanese tourists alike can soak in outside baths surrounded by snow and afterwards enjoy a very traditional Japanese meal.
Sento Entry (Tokyo): 480 yen
Onsen Stay: Takaragawa Onsen (1 night/2 meals)
14,800 yen per person twin share – rates depend on time of year and room
This post is the first of the three in series on the topic of “Sexuality in Japan”.
Next time, I will talk about the Japanese sexuality in the more recent years.
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