The Edo period, sometimes referred to as Japan’s early modern period, lasted from 1603 to 1868. During this time Japan was ruled from Edo (present-day Tokyo) by the Tokugawa clan of samurai whose leaders styled themselves as shogun or military commanders. The samurai class were the effective rulers of all Japan, with the country being divided into feudal domains each headed by a clan chief (daimyo).

The Edo period was a time of great cultural achievement in the arts, especially in the theatre, literature and woodblock printing. It was not the samurai rulers, however, who drove these cultural innovations but the townsfolk, particularly the merchant class of great cities such as Edo and Osaka. The merchants were of ambiguous status: wealthy, but technically the lowest rank of the class system (since they did not themselves produce anything but profited from the labour of others). Some merchant houses benefitted greatly from the economic stability of the times and became the sponsors of artists and cultural events. The homes and lifestyles of the great merchant families were the most fashionable but ostentation was disapproved of by the more austere samurai rulers, who attempted to rein in displays of wealth via sumptuary laws.

One area which the samurai bureaucrats particularly disapproved of was the erotic culture of the cities which found expression in designated pleasure quarters and was widely reflected in the arts of the time. The pleasure quarters, where both female courtesans and male entertainers could be hired for a wide variety of purposes, including sex, were the most fashionable and expensive venues in town. Popular literature of the time, particularly the illustrated novels of Ihara Saikaku (1642—93), features townsmen heroes who were connoisseurs of the sophisticated taste (iki) and style (tsU) necessary to be accepted in various venues (Nishiyama 1997: 58—60). Also, despite their lowly position as prostitutes and entertainers, the most famous courtesans were idolised as great beauties and trend setters. Those unable to afford to attend the pleasure quarters or who wanted to preserve a memento of their time there were able to purchase woodblock prints of famous courtesans and kabuki actors. However, wary of the influence that these colourful illustrations might have on ordinary townspeople, the authorities periodically placed restrictions on the colours that could be used and even on who could be depicted (Screech 2000: 118).

Many other prints were produced depicting the goings-on at these ‘floating world’ venues in more detail, including precise depictions of sexual acts. These shunga, so-called ‘spring pictures’, were also used to illustrate sex manuals (Walthall 2009) and could include illustrations of auto­eroticism, male-female, male-male, female-female and group couplings. Indeed, it has been estimated that almost half of the woodblock prints produced in the seventeenth century featured erotica. From the 1720s on, numerous injunctions were issued aimed at reining in erotic prints and other ‘dubious materials’ (Thompson 2012: 56). The frequency with which these edicts were reissued suggests that they were never very successful in stamping out the erotic picture trade, in part because Japan’s feudal political structure meant that there was no single national authority which could enforce censorship across the entire country. The final set of anti-erotica edicts promulgated by the shogunate was part of the Tempo reforms of the 1840s, just prior to Japan’s opening to the West.