10 Striking Japanese Erotic Shunga Prints Portraying ‘Barbaric’ Strangers

Few Japanese of the 18th and 19th Century travelled abroad and fewer returned, so that a rendez-vous with strangers was only possible in their own homeland. Nagasaki had a rather international atmosphere, with its section of Chinese and a limited group of Europeans and their enslaved Indonesian servants. Shunga (erotic print) fans were interested in these residents, and all are portrayed (though in unequal frequency) in images and stories. The following ten are colourful and striking examples (in no particular order):

10) Chõkyõsai Eiri ( act. 1789~1801 )

This Eiri design from his Models of Calligraphy (c.1801) was inspired by Utamaro’s masterpiece (see No.2) Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow) and features a Dutchman (most probably a Dutch Captain) having intercourse with a Japanese courtesan. These prostitutes were known as Oranda-yuki (‘those going to the Dutch’), as opposed to the Kara-yuki (‘those going to the Chinese’) and the Nihon-yuki (‘those going to the Japanese’).

Incense burns on a table next to them. Some Japanese believed that this was necessary because of the funny smell these red-haired barbarians produced but in reality these incense burners were cleverly sold by the Yotsumeya, a shop specializing in sex paraphernalia, as an enhancer of the sexual appetite. Striking in this design are the Western influences emulating the tone effect of Western copperplate engraving.

9) Yanagawa Shigenobu ( 1787~1832 )

In this distinguishing surimono (commissioned) print (c.1830) Shigenobu depicts his protagonists, a Western couple, as god-like figures (the woman is stunningly beautiful) set in a heavenly setting. Underneath the genitals of the woman vaginal fluids are collected on a plate. The inevitable incense burner on a small table in the background.

8) Keisai Eisen ( 1790~1848 )

This design from Keisai Eisen’s series ‘ Midare Gami (Hair in Disarray / Tangled Hair)’, c. 1817, depicts a Dutchman coupling with his wife and is one of the early applications of the tone effects of Western copperplate engraving in shunga. Also striking is the rich color gradation of the female’s clothing.

7) Kitagawa Utamaro ( 1753~1806 )

A very early rendering by Utamaro (c.1790s) of a Westerner making love to a Japanese courtesan. A comic detail is the motif on the Dutchman’s green suit which also appears on his phallus while the pubic hair resembles the hair on his head. Just like in Eiri’s design (see No.1!) the hands of this European stranger have long cat-like fingernails.

6) Katsushika Hokusai ( 1760~1849 )

From Hokusai’s famous Young Pine Saplings -series (c.1814) the depiction of a Chinese couple collecting vaginal liquids with a ladle. The man is wearing a ring around his penis called namako no wa. The belief that the Western strangers, Chinese as well as Europeans, were very enthusiastic on gathering vaginal liquids for medicinal or other uses, was very popular in Edo (nowadays Tokyo) Japan.

5) Yanagawa Shigenobu ( 1787~1832 )

This composition of a Western couple from the‘ Willow Storm’ -series, late 1820s is unique within shunga, not only for the subject-matter but also for the attempts at shading, most likely in imitation of Western copperplate etching. It is interesting to speculate about which Western examples circulating in Japan at the time would have provided the inspiration for this print. Perhaps they were prints based on the drawings in or later eighteenth century imitations of Il Modo by Giulio Romano (1499-1546).

4) Yanagawa Shigenobu ( 1787~1832 )

This truly astonishing shunga is archetypal of the print designs in Shigenobu’s album Willow Storm. It represents an event already known in the work of Katsushika Hokusai (see No.6!) – the acquiring of vaginal liquids. The tiny feet of the woman and the curled plait on top of the man’s head emphasize their Chinese origin.

3) Utagawa Kuniyoshi ( 1797~1861 )

A small koban (small-sized) print from the Utagawa school (possibly Utagawa Kuniyoshi) published c.1861. The square cartouche in the upper right displays the English flag of Saint George, gehind whoch is a puff of steam, presumably from a steam engine. The three fully clad foreign girls accost a Japanese man, and the text, printed in negative (white on grey), in the bottom left corner reads, ‘Isn’t it too much, can’t I have a break?’ (Lane and hayashi 1995-98/2000: supplemental vol.1,132). Although this print concerns a shunga design it’s not explicit in its portrayal; only a subtle insinuation of one of the women’s pubic hair.

2) Kitagawa Utamaro ( 1753~1806 )

In this rather unflattering image of an intimate Dutch couple Utamaro depicts the man as a rude barbarian (the hat suggests he could be a captain) with almost cannibalistic tendencies. Or as described by Timon Screech in his ‘Sex and the Floating World ‘: “… a wind-blown seadog with a woman seemingly of his own ethnic group although dressed in the costume of a different epoch”. This oban print is from Utamaro’s ‘Poem of the Pillow’ – series (c.1799) which is considered to be one of the great highlights in shunga and Ukiyo-e.

1) Keisai Eisen ( 1790~1848 )

A Westerner penetrates a sleeping courtesan who’s laying with her head on a salon table. In front of the couple on the floor lays a sachet containing an aphrodisiac for women called nyoetsugan. This egoyomi (calendar print) design is meticulously printed with various gauffrage and pigment details, published in c.1810s and attributed to the artist Keisai Eisen (1790-1848).

The Girls of Harajuku, Japan

For the Virgin traveller in Japan, Harajuku is one of those ‘must see’ places on the Japan tourist circuit. Without a doubt the most famous street of Harajuku’s is Takeshita. It is highly doubtful that you will see such a place back home – taking into consideration that I am originally from a place of 3,000 people and sheep outnumber humans by 1000:1 it holds especially true for me.

So who are these infamous Harajuku Girls?

Harajuku gyaru (girl) is the phrase most commonly used to identify girls who hang around Tokyo’s Harajuku district. And of the many varied sites, definitely some of the more eye-catching are the lithe figures of the girls that flank the streets there. A word of warning though, “All that glitters is not gold” and all that looks like a girl is often not either.

You will find the fashion styles not only diverse but in some cases exceedingly bizarre. I often notice myself mentally ‘high fiving’ the girls for their courage and complete lack of self-consciousness. Here are a few of the genres that I have been privileged to see in my trips down those lanes: Gothic Lolita, Gothic Maid, Wamono, Decora, Second-Hand Fashion, and Cyber Fashion (which tends to feature goggles, masks, leather and latex.) In one of my more memorable trips I even saw several girls wearing fake blood and bandages.

What possesses these girls to dress in such an outrageous (and often provocative) way you ask yourself…

A number of of them are evidently doing their best to imitate rock bands such as Japan X (this band almost deserves a post of it’s own.) If we put on our social anthropology coats and glasses (or goggles if you want to get into the swing of it) and burrow deeper we can appreciate that for many others this is a form of escapism. At the peril of over-generalizing I have observed Japan to be a very homogeneous society and this weekly indulgence allows them to briefly escape the majority of the rules of Japanese society. It gives them individuality not as certainly apparent while wearing their usual school uniforms or workplace costume. And perhaps at the heart it gives these wonderful ladies an outlet to express, often in very sexual ways (with ripped stockings, garters, and mini-skirts, etc), the oppression of the Japanese female in their predominantly male dominated society.

I have created the opportunity to talk to quite a a small number of of these girls over the years to try and grasp what makes them ‘tick’ and found the Harajuku Girls, underneath all the make-up and bling, to be like the girl next door – tremendously polite, gracious and warm-hearted.

Hannibal Missouri – A Ghost Town?

It’s not a ghost town yet but it’s getting there. I spent a day in Hannibal, Missouri. I’m a high school English teacher and just couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the home of the American author, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Mid-July I expected the streets of Hannibal to be teeming with sightseers anxious to catch a glimpse of the spot on the Mississippi River where Twain’s hero Huck Finn set sail on his raft . I thought folks would be lined up in droves to tour the Clemens homestead and visit the caves where Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn had so many adventures. But on a steamy summer afternoon I browsed in solitary pleasure through shops replete with Twain novels, biographies and souvenirs. A Japanese tourist and a father and son from England were the only other people visiting Becky Thatcher’s cottage with me. A boy and girl dressed up like Tom Sawyer and his girlfriend Becky looked bored as they waited for tourists to show up and pay $7 to have their picture taken with the famous literary couple. Horse drawn carriages toured the city carting only a few passengers each. I attended an excellent one-man show put on by actor Richard Garey. Standing on a stage crammed with Twain memorabilia, Garey did a lively and educational re-creation of one of Twain’s lectures and story telling presentations. Mark Twain traveled across the United States entertaining crowds of people in the late 1800’s Unfortunately only eight of us were in attendance at the show Garey staged in Hannibal on a July night.

Don’t get me wrong. Hannibal, Missouri is charming. It’s just that the whole place appears to be a little ‘down on its luck.’ We stopped at two bed and breakfast establishments that looked lovely and appealing in the brochures we’d picked up. The doors were locked, the paint peeling and the yards overgrown. The high school English teacher who supplemented his income by running the book store at the Mark Twain museum had plenty of time to ‘talk shop’ with me since I was his only customer. We wanted to try a local Hannibal restaurant for supper, but by seven o’clock many were closed, and others I have to admit looked just a little on the seedy side. We finally settled on Lula Belles, a former bordello turned now into a respectable eatery. It was founded by an enterprising madam from Chicago at the turn of the century. The food was hardly gourmet, but the portions were plentiful and the service friendly. You couldn’t help remembering however that it used to be a centre for gambling and prostitution and was frequently raided by the police. Did the ‘ladies of the evening’ who made their living there a hundred years ago still haunt the place one wondered?

Literary tourism appears to be flourishing. People are flocking to the sites mentioned in the popular book the Da Vinci Code. The Prince Edward Island tourist industry thrives on the Anne of Green Gables books authored by Lucy Maud Montgomery. So what’s the problem in Hannibal, Missouri, the setting for Twain’s novels? I checked some traveler review web sites which mentioned several reasons for Hannibal’s decline including lack of advertising, limited hours of operation and an almost cynical attitude amongst residents about their famous home town author.

I enjoyed Hannibal, Missouri and was glad I had visited. Hopefully the town will be able to make the necessary changes to attract more tourists. Otherwise it might become a place inhabited only by the ghosts of Mark Twain and the interesting cast of characters he created in his memorable novels.