A Shunga art exhibition in Tokyo has fired up the debate around erotic and sexual art in Japan and caused quite a stir in the country where  depictions of erotic or pornographic images are often present in manga cartoons.

Shunga gets its first proper exhibition in Tokyo

Shunga gets its first proper exhibition in Tokyo Image by Bruno Cordioli / CC BY 2.0

The collection of 133 prints of what is called Shunga art is on display at the Eisei Bunko Museum after having been rejected by at least ten other venues.

A lot of the works are on loan from the British Museum. The exhibition has made the Japanese question their relationship with its popular tradition of erotic artwork, visible even in the likes of  manga cartoons. And yet erotic art is controversial and taboo in Japan.

Shunga artwork dates back to the Edo era of Japanese history and often depicts brothels and inns with men and women engaged in a series of sexual acts or voyeurism. It combines story-telling and visual humour in a distinctive way, using the ukiyo-e practice of painted wood panels.

An image from the Shunga exhibition at the Eisei Bunko Museum in Tokyo.

An image from the Shunga exhibition at the Eisei Bunko Museum in Tokyo. Image by Eisei Bunko Museum

According to the exhibition’s organisers the Eisei Bunko exhibit is the first time there has been an official and extensive exhibit of these works of art in Japan. Thousands have made it out to the suburban neighbourhood where the museum is and its popularity has prompted the age-old question, is it art or pornography?

The exhibition has already attracted more than 90,000 visitors who often have to cue for over a half hour to get a glimpse of the artwork by Shunga luminaries such as Katsushika Hokusai and Kitagawa Utamaro. According to the Guardian, the museum’s director, Morihiro Hosokawa, described the honour giving the Japanese public its first opportunity to “appreciate the real shunga” in many years. Hosokawa, who is a former prime minister, went on to say it was time to take the taboo out of Shunga and appreciate it as art. “Printed copies of Shunga are widely available to collectors, and it is not logical that art fans are denied of an opportunity to see the original works.”

The exhibition continues for another month. For more information see here.