Shunga | Japanese Lacquer Cigarette Case | Showa Erotic Art

Cigarette smoking spread along trade routes in the 17th century to Japan and westernized their way of life. The term moga (modern woman) and mobo (modern man) were commonly used for those who allowed foreign influences like smoking into their daily lives. Social conservatives felt especially threatened by the moga, whose popular image at the time was to exude sexual power, westernization, and independence.

Both men and women smoked regularly in Japan. Traditionally, Japanese women who smoked were considered unfeminine. Those who did smoke would rarely, if ever, do so in public. The social stigma was rooted in the belief that a woman’s motherly duties and smoking would inhibit having children. The onset of the Showa period (1926-1989), with its ultranationalist ideology, spelled the end of moga andmobo, but not the end of western fashion and western influence. It returned with a vengeance after the end of WWII, in which cigarette smoking and western clothing became an excellent example of independence in attitude. Modern cigarette cases were introduced in Japan in the early 1900’s and stored multiple cigarettes for convenience, hence the slang “flat fifties” (Hira go jū-nendai) at the time.

Historically, within the smoking culture, men traditionally used tobacco pouches, pipes and their cases. They were hung with toggles on the narrow gentlemans obi. Decorative cigarette cases became a fashionable accessory for women and ones with erotica (shunga), were particularly treasured by both sexes. Translated literally, the Japanese word shunga means picture of spring, “spring” is a common euphemism for sex. Shunga produced in Edo (old Tokyo), tended to be more richly colored and unrealistically detailed than those produced in Kyoto and Osaka, mainly owing to a difference in aesthetic taste between these regions. In almost all shunga the characters are fully clothed with only the private parts exposed. This is primarily because nudity was not inherently erotic in Japan. People were used to seeing the opposite sex naked in communal baths. Superstitutions and customs surrounding shunga suggest that it was enjoyed by both sexes and acted as a sexual guidance for the sons and daughters of Wealthy Families; for the Peasant; Chonin; Samurai and Daimyo, who all owned shunga in some form. It was traditional to present a bride with shunga depicting scenes from the Tales of Genji, to give the couple inspiration and guidance.

Most cigarette holders and cases display traditional Japanese ornamental techniques utilizing all forms of motif. This particular case has a Shunga drawing inside, and a young Japanese girl (most likely a bride) on the front exterior cover. This piece is in mustard lacquer over wood, with excellent detailing, rendition, and color of the erotic scene. Shunga artists refrained from signing shunga works with the exception of woodblock prints after 1761. This piece is unsigned and dates from the 1930s-1950s.

Note: The woodblock image by Ishikawa Toraji (1935) of the moga is not part of this piece but is intended to help one visualize the evolving woman within the Japanese society.

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