Sex Manuals, Japan

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Sex Manuals, Japan

As with sex manuals of other languages and cultures, Japanese sex manuals are illustrated sexual instructions or stories to inform, educate, and entertain the young, newlyweds, or other audiences. Japanese sex manuals are often known as shunga, meaning spring pictures—spring signifies the beginning of a life cycle and is often used interchangeable with the word sex. Shunga is a term used for erotic paintings, prints, and illustrations. Another common name for the Japanese sex manual is pillow book, which refers to the book format or scrolls of stories or poetry with illustrations of artistic expressions of pleasure and joy.

Because of their essential artistic component, Japanese sex manuals are often considered synonymous with erotic art. Most of the books are illustrated with colorful, wood-block prints known as ukiyo-e, meaning the floating world, an art form that flourished from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The wood-block prints are issued as singles or in book form, with eight or twelve pictures of sexual positions, accompanied by narrative text.

Shunga with ukiyo-e prints are perhaps the best-known sex manuals since the seventeenth century; however, sex manuals existed in Japan long before then. The Tale of Genji, a classic of Japanese literature written circa 1000 by Murasaki Shikibu, was rich with the sexual relations and love affairs of Prince Genji. Scrolls or rolls based on this and other erotic stories were made and copied and became widely available among the rich as well as the general public. Inspiration for these sex manuals derived from folklore, the Kabuki theater, pleasure houses and their famous courtesans, as well as Chinese sex manuals.

Whereas most of the authors of the sex manuals were unknown, the contributing artists were identifiable. Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–c. 1694), one of the first shunga artists intensely interested in book illustrations, is known for his adaptation of Chinese erotic prints of the Ming period. Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) illustrated Ehon Warai-jigo (Book of pictures outside all traditions [Mandel 1983]). Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), perhaps the best-known ukiyo-e artist, created the three-volume erotic book of Manpuku wagojin (The fat-bellied god of profit [Mandel 1983]), detailing in pictures and narration the lives and sexual journeys of two women, Osane and Otsubi.

Japanese sex manuals cover a wide range of topics, including body parts, courtship, sexual intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, sadomasochism, masochism, and prostitution. It is also not uncommon to see coverage of incest, bestiality, voyeurism, and rape as part of the sexual plots revolving around the characters. Sexual expressions were often associated with the character development contained within the narrations.

A few aspects of the Japanese sex manuals are culturally specific: The characters are seldom completely nude, and genital organs are often exaggeratedly enlarged. Children are present in most of these books, which may suggest the openness of sexual attitudes in Japan.

Contemporary sex manuals are produced following the artistic tradition and traditional sexual expressions, but the best known are produced as manga, the popular comic books that are widely available for all ages. Sexual messages or sexual instructions are delivered to targeted audiences often specified by gender and age group.

see also Sex Manuals, Ancient World; Sex Manuals, China; Sex Manuals, India; Sex Manuals, Islam; Sex Manuals, Old and Modern West.


Kahn, Donald. 2002. The Life and Times of Japanese Print Masters. Wilmette, IL: Tiger Tales Press.

Mandel, Gabriele. 1983. Shunga: Erotic Figures in Japanese Art, trans. Alison L'Eplattenier. New York: Crescent Books.

Perper, Timothy, and Martha Cornog. 2002. "Eroticism for the Masses: Japanese Manga Comics and Their Assimilation into the U.S." Sexuality and Culture 6(1): 3-126.

                                        Liana Zhou