Winter Exhibition

Sex in the City: Japanese Erotic Prints

New York, NY

Japanese Erotic Prints

Scholten Japanese Art presents a collection of Shunga (lit. spring pictures), otherwise known as erotic prints. This show runs in conjunction with the new publication from Hotei Publishing, Japanese erotic prints: shunga by Harunobu and Koryusai, written by Scholten Japanese Art's Netherlands Representative, Inge Klompmakers. Many of the prints featured in this book will be on view as part of this exhibition, as well as works by additional artists.

These erotic prints, once marginalized due to their supposed prurient nature, are now gaining currency in the Japanese art world. It may surprise many art lovers to learn that most of the well-known ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artists, including Harunobu, Koryusai, Utamaro and Hokusai, also produced prints in the erotic genre. These prints were widely produced and consumed, creating a parallel world to the more widely understood development of the Japanese print.

Japanese Erotic Prints

Shunga flourished during the Edo period (1603-1868) and most often depicted activities within the brothels of the famed Yoshiwara district outside of Tokyo. These pictures allowed those who could not afford to visit "the floating world" an idealized version of this world. Edo was in this period described by the seventeenth-century-author Iharu Saikaku as a "city of bachelors", as men outnumbered women almost two to one. This was a result of the system of sankin kotai, by which daimyo and their retainers were required to move between their regional domain and the Edo capital every other year. Though earlier accounts argued that these erotic prints were educational in nature, current thinking maintains that the prints constituted a poor man's Yoshiwara.

Nudity in Japan was not considered as arousing as in some Western cultures. In fact, shunga artists tend to make the drape of the clothes the erotic element, concealing parts of the body, and leaving more to the viewer's imagination. This is exemplified in Isoda Koryusai's first design of the series "Twelve Bouts on the Way of Sensuality", ca. 1775-7 (published in Japanese erotic prints, plate no. E1). In the print, a group of three men and three women are gathered together, sharing sake and delicacies. This print is typical of a first print in a shunga series in that there is no depiction of sexual activity. The first print would often depict characters engaged in relatively innocent pursuits, thus adding to the titillation by building the dramatic tension and raising expectations of things to come.

Japanese Erotic Prints

Voyeurism is often present in these erotic prints, often as a practical consequence of the small size of the Japanese living quarters, coupled with their open architectural design. Prominent voyeurs include the jealous wife or mistress, and housemaids and servants. The most often referenced Japanese voyeur is a tiny figure named Maneemon, whose name is a pun on both mane (imitation) and mame (bean, or small-sized). Small enough to move about undetected, this "bean imitator" is often placed near the margins of the erotic print. Unseen by the others in the picture, Maneemon provides the viewer of shunga with yet another layer through which to see the print. Maneemon can be seen in one of Suzuki Harunobu's most well-known shunga series, "Elegant Amorous Maneemon". In one of the prints from this series, ca. 1768-70, a couple at a hot spring resort engage in sex not far from the bath while listening to the music of a blind shamisen player, who is separated from the couple only by a partially closed sliding door. Meanwhile, the erect Maneemon has just gotten out of the bath, and dries his head with a towel as he looks on at the couple (published in Japanese erotic prints, plate no. B8).

Another artist known for his delicate, lyrical figures was Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806). What he is perhaps not so well known for, are his prolific forays into the erotic print genre. One of his more provocative prints is a woman holding a long lacquer smoking pipe while entangled in the robes of her lover.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), the famous landscape artist of the early 19th century, known more for his "Great Wave" then for his great shunga, is also represented in this exhibition. In a charming koban (small size print), one of his distinctive manga (comic) figures is seen outside of a door. The hinged paper door literally swings open and to our surprise we see a couple in the midst of intimacy.

Additional shunga by Shuncho, Kiyonaga, Eizan, Eisen and Kunisada will also be on view. The works on display at Scholten Japanese Art allow the viewer to visit the inner rooms of the tea houses and brothels of the Edo period and to gain some insight into the male fantasies of its inhabitants as depicted by its most famous artists.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a special lecture will be given by Inge Klompmakers on shunga by Harunobu and Koryusai.

The winter exhibition opens November 3, 2001 and continues through February 15, 2002.


Scholten Japanese Art is open Monday - Friday, and some Saturdays by appointment only

Contact Katherine Martin at
(212) 585-0474 or email
to schedule a visit between 11am and 4pm preferably for no more than two individuals at a time.
Visitors are asked to wear face masks and practice social distancing at their discretion.

site last updated
August 11, 2022

Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
fx: (212) 585-0475