Unconventional Erotic Art: Bestiality and Homosexuality in Japanese Shunga

Shunga, meaning ‘spring pictures’, is a generic term used to describe erotic art in Japan. It covers a wide range of themes, some of which may seem unorthodox even in today’s standard. In this article, we are going to delve into homosexuality and bestiality in shunga. Why were Japanese artists so frivolous to defy the ‘social norms’ at the time? Or have we misunderstood their norms?

Utagawa Hiroshige’s shunga depicting homosexual love

Shunga was once a mainstream in society and appealed to all classes from the ruling class down to the ordinary townsperson. But it later went ‘underground’ following the censorship edict in 1722. Shunga does not just embody the aesthetic philosophy hailed by Japanese artists at that time, it also offers readers a glimpse of the social hierarchy and cultural practices in the old times.

Miyagawa Choshun’s shunga depicting Nanshoku

To the surprise of many of us, homosexuality was not only widely accepted but celebrated in Japan at that time. Homosexuality is known as shudō, wakashudō and nanshoku in Japan, all referring to male love. It appeared in shunga from the Heian era (794-1185). Rumour has it that homosexuality was imported from China by Kukai (774-835), the founder of Japanese esoteric Buddhism.

Miyagawa Choshun’s shunga depicting Nanshoku

Scholars have found that homosexuality was most apparent during the Edo period (or Tokugawa period). In the early years of the Tokugawa regime (early 17th century), men drastically outnumbered women. The shortage of women was one of the deciding factors for the ubiquity of homosexual activities.

Suzuki Harunobu. Homosexual couple

Homosexual culture was encouraged among Buddhist monks and priests due to the isolation of monasteries. A huge number of male Buddhist monks and priests were expected to stay on the mountain and were isolated from women for a long time. The monastic same sex-love was typically pederastic. The relationship generally involves an older partner, who would be a monk, priest or abbot, together with a younger partner, who would be a prepubescent or an adolescent boy.

Kitagawa Utamaro. Temple page and monk

Same-sex love spread to the samurai class from religious circles. The samurai respected the values of Buddhism and sent their sons to monasteries to receive Buddhist education. Many of them would enter into nanshoku (meaning male same-sex sexual practice) with older monks.

Shunga featuring scene of Buddhist monk making love to his younger partner

While in samurai training, it was customary for a boy to undergo apprenticeship by a more experienced adult man. If the boy agreed, the older man could take the boy as his lover until he reached adulthood. The practice developed into the codified system of age-structured homosexuality known as shudō, abbreviated from wakashūdō (meaning the way of the young).

Miyagawa Isshō. Samurai and his young male lover

The depiction of male-male sex in shunga is mostly about the relationship in which the older one, with his shaven head, is the dominant male while the passive partner is a prepubescent or an adolescent boy, which is depicted with an unshaven forelock. Their sexual roles are generally determined by their ages, seniority and social status.

Suzuki Harunobu. Homosexual scene

In some shunga, these young boys are shown in female clothes. They are known as onnagata in Japanese, referring to male actors who played women’s roles in Japanese Kabuki theatre. Young kabuki actors often worked as prostitutes off-stage and they catered to a mixed male and female clientele.

Pupil of the Utagawa school. Onnagata and older male

One interesting point that we can see in shunga is that the leading male enjoys the act while the younger partner is mostly doing it out of respect or duty or for money. Some shunga pictures work on the theme of threesome sex, in which a young man is intruded by a stranger in the midst of sexual intercourse.

Shunga depicting lesbian love 

On the other hand, there was no such word as female-female sex in Japanese. Images that we found in shunga depicting lesbianism were mostly about male fantasies of women masturbating using her fingers or a dildo. This kind of shunga was very likely designed by men and intended for a male audience.

Chokyisai Eiri. One of the girls is wearing a huge harigata and the other girl is holding it and using lubricant

Katsushika Hokusai. The two women here are abalone divers, a profession practised by women who dive for pearls. One of the girls uses a sea-cucumber as an improvised dildo

Katsushika Hokusai. One of the girls is sucking the breast of another girl

Bestiality is sometimes depicted in shunga as well, though not as common as homosexuality and heterosexuality. Homosexuality in shunga reflects the Japan tradition of age-structured homosexuality that was prevalent in the samurai society. However, the rise of bestiality in shunga art was definitely not because of its ubiquity. It had to do with the 1722 censorship edict, which caused shunga art to go ‘underground’.

To bypass censorship laws, shunga artists used animals as the subject matter to avoid their works from being censored. For example, some shunga featured females performing fellatio on animals because oral penetration of a non-human penis was out of the scope of Japanese censorship laws.

The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife. Katsushika Hokusai

One of the best-known examples is The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife by Katsushika Hokusai, the artist who created the iconic work The Great Wave off Kanagawa. It depicts an octopus performing oral sex on a female's genitalia, with his tentacles wrapping around the woman.

Kobayashi Eitaku's shunga depicting a young male with animal skin having sex with a young woman

Kobayashi Eitaku's shunga depicting a fox stroking the private parts of a young girl

Other animals depicted in shunga include foxes, dogs, mice, monkeys etc. Shunga of bestiality depicts women raped by animals or half-human monsters. For example, in Japanese culture, foxes are believed to be a cunning animal which can transform into a human form. Some shunga paintings show humans with tails or in animal skin to trick women into having sex.

Kobayashi Eitaku's shunga depicting a bat performing cunnilingus

Kobayashi Eitaku's shunga depicting a mouse performing cunnilingus

Other Eitaku’s shunga pictures involving bestiality:

Though erotic art with animal iconography is unusual and mind-blowing, they are a testimony of the eccentricity and creativity of Japanese shunga artists. As people always say, ‘The only limit is your imagination’.