sex and humour
in Japanese art,

Project leader

Department of Asia 


  • Professor Drew Gerstle and Dr. Yano Akiko, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
  • Professor Hayakawa Monta, International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken)
  • Professor Akama Ryo and Dr. Ishigami Aki, Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto

Supported by

The Leverhulme Trust
 Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve), print artist Torii Kiyonaga, about 1785 (detail).

In early modern Japan, thousands of sexually explicit paintings, prints, and illustrated books with texts were produced, euphemistically called ‘spring pictures’ (shunga). Official life in this period was governed by strict Confucian laws, but private life was less controlled in practice.

Frequently tender, funny and beautiful, shunga were mostly done within the popular school known as ‘pictures of the floating world’ (ukiyo-e), by celebrated artists such as Utamaro and Hokusai. Early modern Japan was certainly not a sex-paradise; however, the values promoted in shunga are generally positive towards sexual pleasure for all participants.

Shunga is in some ways a unique phenomenon in pre-modern world culture, in terms of the quantity, the quality and the nature of the art that was produced. This project aims to answer some key questions about what shunga is and why it was produced. In particular exploring the social and cultural contexts for sex art in Japan.

During the twentieth century, shunga was all but removed from popular and scholarly memory and became taboo. The ambition of this project is to help illuminate the importance of shunga in Japanese history. Its outcomes will include an exhibition, a scholarly catalogue to accompany it, and a series of critical translations of key erotic texts.


Image: Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve), print artist Torii Kiyonaga, about 1785 (detail).