Gay shunga – lust and love beneath the cherry tree
Gay shunga is rare. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist. Before the Meiji era and its frantic westernization, Japan did not see same-sex intercourse or relationships as something taboo. The island nation’s indigenous religion of Shinto did not criticise or judge same-sex relations, and neither did Buddhism. Men had romantic love affairs, with plenty of poetry and suffering of the heart. For the samurai, it could even be an emblem of masculinity.
Since society was highly male-oriented, many men held the opinion that a woman could never understand the romantic emotions of a man. Only men could fully grasp the workings of another man’s love. Ukiyo-e and shunga prints depicting gay love and sex were popular, and so were books telling the stories of brave men’s sexual escapades with the same sex.
Gay shunga by Kitagawa Utamaro
Kabuki theatre, where men played the roles of beautiful women, was also a central part of this male-male culture. The Onnagata, specialising in female roles, could be either object of sincere, romantic attention or work extra as a male prostitute. It is also worth to note the fact that when an Onnagata in full female dress and makeup had sex with another man, the boundaries of gender became seriously blurred.
In Japanese society at the time, it was the outer attributes like dress, hair and makeup that decided your gender and not your genitalia. Quite a different approach to the western idea of it being the genitalia that decides for us who we are in society’s eyes.
A man having sex with an Onnagata, a male actor playing female roles in Kabuki theatre
Sakura, cherry blossoms, have been an integral part of Japanese culture and art for centuries. In the art of shunga, it can represent female sexuality (plum blossoms for male). Its strongest association is perhaps with the idea of mono no aware. This Japanese term refers to the bittersweetness that accompanies the insight of everything’s fleetingness. This way of seeing things has its origins in Japanese Buddhism and it has coloured many aspects of Japanese culture over its many historical periods.
I often use sakura in my art. Either as a fabric pattern or the flower itself. Sometimes it even adorns the skin of the persons inhabiting my work, assuming the form of Irezumi, traditional Japanese tattoos.
I have had the fortunate opportunity to have been present myself during Hanami, when Japanese people eat and drink beneath the blossoming trees.It is a memory I often revisit.
Gay shunga painting by Senju
In my latest work, titled “Hanami”, I use this celebration as a backdrop for the male lovers enjoying a moment of intimacy as the pale flower petals slowly fall like snow around them.
I have attempted to portray gay sex and intimacy a few times before but never felt confident with the results. This time I let my idea mature a long time before I set out to work. The male lovers, dressed in Edo period striped kimono and hakama, wear female Noh theatre masks.
To hide oneself behind a mask is certainly not a part of the Japanese Hanami tradition but rather something I added from my imagination. Partly for aesthetical reasons and partly because I want to play with the viewer’s perhaps preconceived ideas of gender and sexuality.
“The delusion of normalcy has caused tremendous suffering for countless human beings, and it would be wise to cure ourselves of it as soon as possible. “
Outdated and bigotted religious ideas have been engraved in our societies and minds that there should be a certain kind of sexuality that is “normal”. The delusion of normalcy has caused tremendous suffering for countless human beings, and it would be wise to cure ourselves of it as soon as possible.
From an early age, the world around us teaches us to label all things we encounter and attach values to them. In this way, we create a distance between ourselves and the world around us, resulting in a warped perception not based on the reality of things.
I think we can all agree that love is one of the most profound expressions of what makes us truly human. So why do so many people have problems with same-gender relationships and attractions? Why do we have an opinion about what is appropriate love or not?
These are the questions, among many others, I want to address and discuss in my work. Even if some of my paintings on the surface might seem all about pleasure, these are thoughts that are always with me.
“Kaishun” by Senju
When I started creating erotic art, I decided early on to try to question the norms of our contemporary society and the idea of “normal” being equal to “natural”.
What this means to me is constantly exploring my inner workings to see what kind of biases and prejudices plague me without myself being necessarily aware of them. I am sure we all have plenty of old dusty boxes inside us best destined for recycling.
It is the curse of us humans to grow up assuming that we are our true selves, only to later in life find out that we are mostly copies of copies. Our thoughts, emotions and reactions are inherited and challenging them can help us grow to blossom.
For just like the sakura, we are only here for a very brief time in space.
Above and below: photographs of sakura in bloom captured in Kyoto, Japan by Senju.
In this new series of Shunga paintings, Senju explores classic prints by Japanese artists and creates new versions inspired by the Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay “In praise of shadows”.
Senju talks about his painting “Hanami”, the falling cherry blossom petals and the delusional idea that a specific form of sexuality is more “normal” than others.
In this story, Senju presents a new version of his very first shunga painting, “Haru (springtime)” and explains some of the ideas and background of how it came to be.