Captain John Saris: the Man who brought Shunga to England

1707 Map of Japan
1707 Map of Japan


Today I want to tell a story. About a captain named John Saris, who in 1613 brought back to England some “pictures” from his travels in Japan. But they were not pictures that English or European people would consider ordinary. They were “Shunga” pictures.  It so happened that it was not only Captain Saris’s compatriots who were shocked when they saw these pictures. The following incident is characteristic:

“Francis Hall, one of the first US businessmen to visit Japan after the reopening of the country in 1859, was amazed when the respectable married couple who had entertained him to dinner in their home proudly showed him some treasured examples (of Shunga), husband and wife together.” (1)

Torii Kiyonaga, detail taken from Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve, c.1785
Torii Kiyonaga, detail taken from Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve, c.1785

But what is Shunga?

“Shunga, literally ‘spring pictures’, is the name given to the major genre of explicit erotic art created in Japan during the early modern period (my note “the Edo period”), c.1600–1900. At its best, shunga celebrates the pleasures of lovemaking, in beautiful pictures that present mutual attraction and sexual desire as natural and unaffected. Generally the couples shown are male-female, sometimes married, sometimes not. It is not unusual – particularly in the earlier part of the period – also to find male-male couples, according to accepted custom whereby a mature man courted a youth. The genre’s artistic conventions include facial expressions conveying a sense of deep pleasure, exaggerated sexual organs that are the source of that pleasure and surroundings filled with gorgeous textiles, accessories, food and drink. Often the pictures will contain snippets of humorous and even farcical conversation between the lovers. Another common name for a spring picture was ‘laughter picture’ (warai-e).” (1)

Tokugawa Ieyasu, first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate
Tokugawa Ieyasu, first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate

The Edo period  

The Edo period  is the period between 1603 and 1867 in the history of Japan, when the country was under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

“Men and women during the Edo period really enjoyed life and this is reflected through shunga,” says Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery director Angelika Li. “Look at the facial expressions and the interactions depicted, they are enjoying what they are doing, it’s not perverse, it’s relaxed, it’s saying that sex is just a part of life to be enjoyed.” (2)

There was no strong sense in Edo Japan of sex as ‘sinful’, certainly not according to the native beliefs we now call Shintō, which traced the mythical origins of the Japanese islands and the imperial lineage to the conjugation between the deities Izanagi and Izanami, who learned the techniques of lovemaking by watching the twitching tail of a wagtail. (1)

Emperor Meiji
Emperor Meiji

The Meiji period

The Edo period is followed by the Meiji period, which starts on 3rd May 1868. Meiji is the restoration of the imperial rule in Japan, under Emperor Meiji. It was a response to the perceived threat by the colonial powers of the day. Japan was weak militarily and centuries of isolation had kept the country underdeveloped in armaments and industry.

“By the Meiji period, the influence of Western values had transformed shunga into a thing of taboo, and contemporary Japanese society continues to struggle with prejudices against shunga.” (2)

Kitagawa Utamaro: A scene from the poem of the pillow
Kitagawa Utamaro: A scene from the poem of the pillow

East India Company

The East India Company (EIC) was incorporated by royal charter in 1600. The charter granted a monopoly of all English trade in all lands washed by the Indian Ocean (from the southern tip of Africa, to Indonesia in the South Pacific). Unauthorized (British) interlopers were liable to forfeiture of ships and cargo. The company was managed by a governor and 24 directors chosen from its stockholders.

Sir Thomas Smythe
Sir Thomas Smythe

The Clove

It was 11th June 1613 when Clove, a British ship, sailed into Hirado, a port on the westernmost tip of the island of Kyushu.

It was the first British ship to arrive in Japan.

The Commander of the voyage, John Saris, was warmly welcomed by the local ruling family, the Matsuura, and the lord himself went aboard the Clove to view it.

Clove set out of England in the Spring of 1611, leading a mission of three ships. The trip was organised by the East India Company, then headed by Sir Thomas Smythe (c.1588-1625). (3)

Ravaged by scurvy, ­dysentery and hungry cannibals encountered during their   traumatic two-year journey, the surviving crew of the East India Company’s   galleon, the Clove, staggered ashore at Hirado, Japan’s westernmost port, in  June 1613.

Clove was met by William Adams, or “Anjin Miura” (the Pilot from Miura), an Englishman who had arrived 13   years earlier as the pilot of a Dutch ship, understood the language and had   risen to honorary samurai status.

Katsushika Hokusai - Diving Girl with Octopus
Katsushika Hokusai – Diving Girl with Octopus

What happened in Japan?

Saris and Adams took a month to reach Shizuoka, entering the city along a road   lined with severed heads on pikes. The journey gave Saris time to observe   the Japanese: he liked their “cheese” (in fact, tofu) and the women were    “well faced, handed and footed”, although he was somewhat put off by their   practice of dyeing their teeth black. The journey also gave the two men time   to get to know each other. The crew of the Clove had expected an effusive   welcome from a compatriot marooned for 13 years, but were offended by   Adams’s coolness towards them. Saris distrusted him as “a naturalised   Japaner”. The historian James Murdoch likely echoes Adams’s view of Saris as    “a mere dollar-grinding philistine with a taste for pornographic pictures”. (5)

Shogun Ieyasu granted trading rights to Captain John Saris, who established the first English trading post in Japan. In this capacity he was able to acquire many goods, including the “shunga” pictures he brought back to England with him.


The return to England

Saris took the Clove out from Japan in late 1613 with many Japanese artefacts, in addition to the presents, such as lacquer, screens and (not for sale, but for Saris’s own amusement) erotic images, called shunga.

The Clove arrived home in Plymouth in September, and in London in December, 1614. The lacquer was sold at auction and is the first art auction ever held in English history. The screens were auctioned second.

Things, however, for the Captain were not good. After his return to England Saris was charged with cruelty towards his men and with smuggling.

The shunga was confiscated by the East India Company and destroyed, being considered scandalous.

Though officially reprimanded, he was also awarded a ‘gratification’ for his achievements of over £300.

Now rich, he left the Company and some time later married Anne, granddaughter of a former Lord Mayor of London. When she died childless after a couple of years, Saris moved to comfortable retirement in Fulham, a fashionable suburb in 1629. He took a house on Church Gate, behind All Saints Church. Saris died on 11th December 1643, leaving much of his money to charity. His grave is modest and sadly has been damaged and removed from its original site. (4)

Large Perspective Picture of a Second-Floor Parlor in the New Yoshiwara, "Looking Toward the Embankment” (1745), a hand-colored woodcut by Okumura Masanobu
Large Perspective Picture of a Second-Floor Parlor in the New Yoshiwara, “Looking Toward the Embankment” (1745), a hand-colored woodcut by Okumura Masanobu

Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art, An Exhibition at the British Museum

Among the trade goods Saris brought back to London and displayed at the Royal Exchange, were ‘lascivious’ pictures, now presumed to have been Japanese shunga. These were promptly burned by outraged Company officials. Destroyed in 1615, locked away in 1865, shunga was finally publicly displayed for the first time in London in 1973 as part of a general exhibition of ukiyo-e prints organised by the Victoria & Albert Museum. In 1995, the British Museum included all the major shunga works by Utamaro in its special monograph exhibition of that artist.

Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art is the first comprehensive exhibition to focus in detail on the beauty and humour of shunga, setting this fascinating art form in its historical and cultural context. (1)


1. British Museum Magazine – Timothy Clark, curator of Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art talks about the exhibition

2. INTERVIEW: Uragami Mitsuru on Japanese Erotic Art, Shunga

3. The Voyage of ‘The Clove’ – Japan 400 Years Ago, Eccentric Parabola

4. Historical Overview  – 400 years of Japan – British relations

5.The Daily Telegraph:  Japan: 400 years in a fascinating land. Michael Booth retraces the footsteps of the first English samurai.


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