Sex and the Floating World | (Japanese Shunga) A summary & review

Sex and the Floating World (book) by Timon Screech

Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan 1700-1820 by Timon Screech
Erotic Images in Japan 1700-1820 in Edo (Tokyo)

A progression towards urbanization created a 'city of bachelors' (Ch 1) that were prime consumers of the emerging genre of Japanese pornography, Shunga. At the time it developed, city officials were concerned about it; both as a presence and in terms of the possibility that we today would look back upon their era and see it. Rightfully so. Much later, at the end of the Shunga proliferation, Japan banned graphic genitals, pubic hair and anuses (but not semen) until recently; thus the revitalization of Shunga imagery for us to study now.

Spring Fever

Shunga are literally "spring pictures" in books, and were realistic, overtly sexual images for masturbation ("solitary pleasure"). Sex was associated with the feminine yin and all things wet and watery (Pg 130-134). Young women, and sometimes boys, were associated with the cherry blossom, beautiful and fleeting. Boys were also represented by the narcissus and iris which bloom during the annual Boys' Festival, and they could grow into their maturity with the plum (Pg 134-151).

A masturbatory purpose with holy origins

"[...] recent interpretations in Japan and elsewhere have been amazingly resistant to analyses of just what erotica was for; use remains the big encompassing silence (Pg 7)."

A traditional creation myth describes a god standing on the "Floating Bridge of Heaven" and when he "dipped his 'jewelled spear' (uobatsura) into the formless water, shook it and withdrew, the falling drops coagulat[ed] into" Japan, the first land (Pg 264). In texts we find the word "worship" is used when describing masturbation to an image, and nuns and monks were shown; although overall it seems the market was geared towards a male consumer. A euphemism for anal sex was "praying at the inner sanctum" (Pg 231).

We're not in Kansas anymore

"Pictures of the Floating World do not depict actuality: they spin fantasies (Pg 9)."

What started as "bawdiness", humor, and parody transformed into pornography by centering on a neighborhood of legal prostitution in the outskirts of town. Publishers eventually began to use color in luxurious prints, catering to the elite and upperclass. Pictures of beautiful people were also common and avoided direct censorship as such. They were often of famous prostitutes, who were often actors, and since actors were male, they were often of effete males. Youth was also the norm.

I see you

"Both the gaze of the viewer of the picture and the mutuality of the gazes of the depicted persons are crucial (Pg 10)."

Throughout the 1800s, the concept of voyeurism was honed so that the masturbatory gaze of the picture viewer would coincide with a gaze from within the picture. This often involved third parties, such as a maid or relative or neighbor, and sometimes included use of telescopes and mirrors. The third party might even be a portrait within the picture, as in a painting on the wall or screen in the depicted scene.


There was a brief period of reverting to black and white (due to cost we assume), then cheap color emerged during a period of severe class distinction. As technology advanced and cheap prints could be made, it was possible for accurate likenesses of prostitutes to be made as advertisements, either for those of means to indicate who they wanted, or for the disenfranchised to fantasize about.

The correlation between the "dictatorial force of fashion" (Pg 51-52) and social decline was linked to the sexual pictures by the administrative conservatives; supposedly because fashion was based on the prostitutes and patrons which created a system of culture moving up through the ranks instead of down: a 'good' girl might do her hair according to a famous courteson (even if unwittingly), thus proving that the sexual culture was infiltrating polite society. Music was another avenue of cross-contamination: young men of good standing started learning to play instruments typically used in the theatre and brothels. At the heart of this was class. The distinctions between well-bred and ill-bred were blurring:

"[...] you could scarcely tell a samurai from a townsman (Pg 60)."

Ceci n'est pas un homme

Women were known to be shifty, but men were expected to be solid. Even though rent boys were penetrated, they were expected to grow up to be penetrators (Pg 92). Penetrating young boys between the ages of 12 and 17 was normal, but allowing a boy to penetrate a man was deviant behavior and censured (Pg 94).

"Samurai were not what they had been (Pg 79)."

As the period of the samurai waned, and the sword became a fashion statement and class distinguisher more than it was an actual weapon of use, the values they stood for were threatened and people got scared. Suddenly samurai were dying from a simple horse accident or from a double-love-suicide pact with the local whore rather than in battle. Cultural frenzy ensued. A mythos was created and 'The way of the samurai is death' motto was created in the eighteenth century, "precisely when the samurai as an effective military caste had ceased to be. They were bureaucrats (Pg 80)."

Medicine got on board and physicians began to find evidence that men were becoming women. Medicine was gender  specific, and suddenly cures intended for women were found to be effective treatment for men as well, while the masculine treatment was ineffective. Clearly society was at a lack of "real" men. The erotic images changed, too. Whereas in the past, a samurai might be so dedicated to the field of battle that he contents himself with penetrating young boys in the camp, he now finds himself disrobed and lax in bed with a woman, sword "placed beside the bed" (Pg 82-83).

Another clear indicator of the emasculation of real men was that in order to enter the brothels, a warrior had to leave his sword in care of someone on the outside. The Yoshiwara district banned swords from the get go, and here are the results: effete men. To travel up river to the brothel district was to walk on a path of "deheroization" (Pg 83).

The "rent boys" were originally in training to become warriors ("hero-in-waiting"), but as war time declined, and theatre surged, the rent boys were literally dressed as women and girls. By the time the fear hit over the loss of warrior culture, you could hardly find a good "rent boy" on the market, female prostitution having nearly completely taken over. At the same time, the "European" look arrived, including a unisex haircut, along with the European concept of anatomy and surgery being identical for men and women (Pg 96). Interestingly, pictures in medical books showed no internal gender difference other than the reproductive organs, however males were pictured more often because of the assumption of prurient interest in pictures of females (Pg 97). While Europe devalued gender differences within the body, they emphasized them pictorially on the outside; while in Japan the gender differences were obscured on the outside, but delineated on the inside (Pg 100). Eventually, the ideas pertaining to a gendered world came in from Europe again, only this time in reference to plants, which "by the nineteenth century had spawned pornographic extensions, such as stories of women copulating with 'male plants, or inter-species eroticism in the floral world" (Pg 99).

When looking at shunga in the Edo period, you will notice that men and women are mostly demarcated by their clothing rather than their bodies. In Japanese society, to cross-dress was to adopt a new sex for all practical purposes, as well as a new gender. Breasts are not emphasized, with only the nipple considered erogenous; and it is only the genitals that create the erotic power (Pg 108). Nakedness in itself, and skin and its shapes, were not particularly erotic. It was the clothing and setting that created restrained eroticism (Pg 100). Foreign and modern viewers routinely mistake young boys for girls in looking at shunga (Pg 108).

The fear was that the emasculation of men had ceased to be purposeful and conscious, and that "all males, willy-nilly, were sliding into the regiment of females" (Pg 100). Edo males walked in front of their women on the street, and single women were expected to be harassed, whereas in Keishi, men were considered feminine for walking hand in hand with their women (Pg 267).

The gods (of the beaurocrats) are angry

Cataclism came. Volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, earthquakes. Down with porn! The gods are angry. Laws were passed that prevented women from dressing too "loud". Hairpins and sashes were a sign of the times and were legally  regulated. Men and women could be arrested on the street for dressing too "splendid" and prostitutes could have their wardrobes seized for "excessiveness" (Pg 117). Public bathhouses became segregated by sex, which of course led to an increase in fetishistic representation of women bathing.

To be, or not to be, nude

Meanwhile, in Europe, nudes became the second most important painting style and were increasingly purported to be fine art and therefore not erotic. European nudes were of secondary sexual characteristics, whereas pornography was graphic genitals (Pg 110). "Greek subjects remained the focus of the nude" and allowed for a time distance between the observer and the portrait that coddled non-erotic platitudes of the day. The Church became the authority on what was considered obscene and fig leaves abounded. Even so, a European nude was referred to as shunga in Japanese translation. (Pgs 101-104)

One point to remember is that you can not "assume sex was performed naked" (Pg 118). This is pre-air conditioning and central heat. People across the world had sex with their clothes on to one degree or another most of the time.

Not only was sex covered, it was contained. Sex was almost always shown indoors, and if not, it was considered "awkward." Sex was generally only shown with prostitutes (and eventually, only prostitutes could be shown in erotic images by law, and were to remain nameless), and prostitutes were "sequestered" in neighborhoods with literal moats surrounding them (Pgs 237-248). It was also forbidden to publish shunga "on court themes" or the identifiable elite, punishable by "manacles" and the work could be banned (Pg 263).

A shift towards exploitation and the morality of heterosexual procreation

Screech's interpretation of early shunga is that the convention allowed for a mind/body split, where the genitals are enlarged nearly to the size of the head, and shown separated from the head by some sort of prop, often coinciding with the page break in a book in a two-page spread. Reigning philosophical ideologies of mutual engagement are in contrast to the later shunga where force and abuse became common. Although inequality was almost guaranteed (through the power exchange of penetrator/penetrated and commodification of buying sex), the images themselves allow room for choice and the presumption that the mind was on par with the body's sex-drive. (Pg 126-128)

Shunga declined into sex and violence, and with it, a condemnation of masturbation - the pictures and the action became a bad ensemble. During a 1790's "government clamp-down, the representation of all living persons was restricted: they could still be depicted but they could not be named on a print." Sex began to be depicted outside the brothel. Travel became more common as roads were built. The "carnal pilgrimage" was a clear purpose of travel + sex  and was embraced by the elite. Red-light district guides were published. It almost goes without saying that the travelers were male. Women at roadside inns who served men were 'waitresses' of both food and sex. Erotic travelogues consisted of detailed prints showing a male main character as he traveled from one sexual encounter to the next. From the Edoite's perspective, the rural villages were there to produce, and sex and women were simply another aspect of that.

Government fears of rural depopulation were marked, and masturbation came to be seen as wasteful. The average age of marriage decreased. Pornography began to actually include philosophical text on the moral responsibility of procreation and the production value of sex, along with agricultural euphemisms for sexuality. The way of boys was diminished as heterosexuality took on political importance. Screech posits that this is the beginning of the myth that porn was meant to stimulate copulation as opposed to masturbation; this was simply as a defense mechanism on the part of artists and publishers so they could continue their work amidst new shifts in regulations.

"At the moment that the deliverability of the after-effects of sex becomes a concern, the motif of violence against those who will not supply it begins to appear. Eighteenth-century shunga never entertained the possibility that a partner might be unwilling; no one was forced. [But later] depicted partners pull away from each other and the fusing of bodies that we noted before is lost. [...] Actual rape becomes a shunga fetish" (Pg 278-279).


What's fascinating about this book and the story it tells, is how similar it is to what happened in Greece and Roman culture.  I'm starting to think that there was a world-wide shift that happened in stages at the advent of centralized governance, agriculture and the social divide created between rural and urban lifestyles.

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