Shunga and the Sexual Art of Ukiyo-e

Shunga – Sexual Imagery of the Edo Period – Great Pleasure in Edo

A sub-category of Japanese ukiyo-e “Japanese woodblock prints”, is shunga, literally meaning “spring pictures” – a euphemism for sex. Extremely popular among the public during the Edo period, shunga depicts sexual imagery of all sorts – sex between a man and woman,  orgy sex, gay sex, and on and on [3]. As publishing sexually explicit content became more common during the 1980s, these pieces were compiled. So now you can find entire books with several editions, specifically dedicated to shunga or “spring pictures” as were called by the people of Edo (Old Tokyo)[3].

Although shunga was pretty popular among Japanese people back in the Edo period, this category has become particularly looked down upon in Japan these days. Rather unconventional don’t you think? The Japanese have never been one to shy away from talking about sex. And it’s not just porn, sexual imagery has been commonplace in Japanese comics, manga etc [2]. Sex was never a taboo – instead, it was used as a humor tool in the entertainment industry and in a variety of genres I might add, such as men hunting for women or the opposite, gaydom etc. So the idea of thinking of such imagery as ‘dirty’ probably came from the Christian community of the West [3].

Don’t get me wrong though, the category didn’t have it easy in the Edo period either. Back at the time, Tokugawa shogunate, the military leader during the Edo period banned shunga as he believed that it was corrupting public morals at the time. And boom, the shunga market went underground and became illegal from here on out. But the silver lining? That probably was the best thing that happened to shunga artists as they no longer had to abide by censorship laws and were then freer to go as crazy as they would want! So with its newfound freedom, this form of woodblock art reached a new height of glory, unlike ever before.  Almost all the famous artists began painting shunga, which later developed into a hentai culture in modern Japan [1].  This included Hokusai, Utamaro, and many other Ukiyo-e legends. With the mass production that had come forth, shunga now took a turn and began to represent intimate moments of any ‘average’ person in Japan instead of being an overly exaggerated, untouchable form of art. To put it differently, Japanese people began to take a particular liking to it since this form of art depicted sexual acts and desires free from all prejudice and taboo.

A notable name in the shunga ukiyo-e world would be Miyagawa Issho, who produced numerous shunga illustrations in his lifetime. In fact, he was one to break all bounds and eliminate any possible prejudice toward sex [2]. Not only did he depict how intimacy goes hand in hand with romance, but he also painted several gay sex pieces alongside other LGBTQ pieces. And mind you, this was at a time when homosexuality was looked down upon. So bringing forth such woodblock art pieces was quite a bold move.

Utamaro and Shunga

Of the big names in ukiyo-e, Katsushika Hokusai made a 14-piece shunga series as a transition from one to the next, which gained remarkable popularity at the time [1].  Hokusai’s most well known Shunga publication, published in 1814, is called Young Pines, and depicts some pretty outrageously embellished sexual acts with enlarged body parts, and dreamy sequences that only a master like Hokusai could conjure.

Several shunga art pieces are on display in the British Museum now and yearly exhibitions are held which bring in individuals from all across the globe! As a matter of fact, these prints are quite famous in the buying and selling market for Japanese woodblock prints even today [2].  Browse our selection of woodblock prints for sale and you might in fact find an original Shung ukiyo-e piece for sale!


[1]“Shunga: Japanese Woodblock Prints.” Gallagher & Turner,

[2] “Shunga.” Shunga Japanese Woodblock Prints,

[3] Berry, Paul. “Rethinking ‘Shunga’: The Interpretation of Sexual Imagery of the Edo Period.” Archives of Asian Art, vol. 54, 2004, pp. 7–22. JSTOR, Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.


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