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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

"The Floating World"

Three Beauties of the Present Day, Kitagawa Utamaro, 1793

Living only for the moment, savoring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.

Asai Ryōi, Ukiyo Monogatari (“Tales of the Floating World”), 1661

Internal peace and stability. Fundamental ingredients for economic prosperity and cultural development. After a century of constant civil war, the Tokugawa shogunate helped usher in a period of relative peace and stability in Japan beginning in the 17th century. An increase in wealth and urbanization allowed people to patronize the arts. A new art form, ukiyo-e, emerged to reflect this new urban lifestyle and culture.

Since the 12th century, different shogunates had effectively ruled feudal Japan. The shogun, taken from the more powerful daimyos or feudal lords, was the country’s military dictator. The power of the daimyos rested in land holdings and private armies of samurai. During the 16th century, commonly referred to as the Warring States Period, many of the most powerful daimyo clans contested each other for supremacy and the title of shogun. In 1573, daimyo Oda Nobunaga defeated the last Ashikaga shogun to begin a period of renewed centralization and unification of Japan. Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582. His general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, avenged his master’s death and ascended to the shogunate. His reign would be marked with problems, including failures during attempted invasions of Korea. This weakened Hideyoshi’s power base and fomented discontent among the government bureaucrats. Hideyoshi executed his nephew and presumed heir Toyotomi Hidetsugu in 1595. Therefore, when Hideyoshi died in 1598, he needed to turn the shogunate over to Toyotomi Hideyori, a five-year-old boy. This created a power vacuum.

Courtesan painting a screen, Torii Kiyonobu, ca. 1711

This power vacuum resulted in the emergence of two significant factions for government control. Tokugawa leyasu had seniority, influence, and a respected reputation within the existing shogunate bureaucracy. He had the allegiance of many of the daimyos of eastern Japan. The clans loyal to Toyotomi and the western daimyos rallied around Ishida Mitsunari. Tensions had existed while Hideyoshi was still alive, but they quickly descended into open conflict by 1600. On October 21, 1600, the forces of Tokugawa leyasu encountered the army of Ishida Mitsunari at Sekighahara in what is the Gifu prefecture of Japan. Tokugawa won a decisive victory against his rivals. Ishida was executed, and the influence of the Toyotomi clan was broken. Tokugawa awarded his followers the lands of the defeated and exiled many others who had fought against him. In 1603, Emperor Go-Yozei declared him shogun, thus officially establishing the Tokugawa shogunate.

The Tokugawa shoguns consolidated their power through policies meant to restrict the daimyos’ independence and influence. The daimyo could hold only one fortification in his territory or han. The shogun issued the buke shohatto, Laws of the Military Houses. These were regulations imposed upon the samurai and daimyos. And the daimyos were required to alternate between living at their han and Edo (present-day Tokyo), the newly established capital of the shogunate. The rule of the Tokugawa shoguns is also known as the Edo period. By diminishing the power of daimyo and samurai, the shoguns would preserve peace and stability for nearly 250 years.

The actor Otani Oniji III as Edobei, Tōshūsai Sharaku, 1794

Japanese society was rigid and highly formalized at this time. Neo-Confucianism influenced the Tokugawa clan, and the social order was strictly divided. Everyone knew their place within this social order. At the top were the emperor and his court. The emperor had prestige but no real power. Power remained with the shogun, and underneath him were the daimyos and other feudal lords whose power rested with their relative closeness to the shogun. Everyone else was divided into four classes. These were the samurai, peasants, artisans, and merchants. Peasants ranked under the samurai, and merchants were considered at the very bottom of the social order. Despite their social position, merchants were quickly accumulating much of the wealth.

Rice production increased steadily throughout the 17th century. The neo-Confucian ideology of the shogunate valued frugality, hard work, and agriculture. The castle towns of the daimyos became marketplaces, and the requirement to travel between their domains and Edo spurred the growth of a consumer market in Edo and encouraged domestic trade throughout Japan. The development of this market economy prompted merchants to create various credit instruments. Currency came into general use, and guilds of artisans emerged to meet the demand for goods and services. Rapid urbanization occurred. More people lived in urban centers in Japan than in many other places during this period. Edo was one of the most populated cities in the world. Artisans, merchants, samurai, and daimyos all lived in the cities. The artisans and merchants were economically well off, but they had little political power at the bottom of the social ladder. On the other hand, the samurai, whose income was declining, were continually expected to train for war but were forbidden to wage war.

Enjoying the Cool of the Evening at Ryôgoku Bridge, Okumura Masanobu, ca. 1745

There was one place where the social and political boundaries that separated the different classes fell away. These were the entertainment districts in the large cities of Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka. The Yoshiwara district in Edo was the most renowned of these urban areas. Yoshiwara was established in 1617 as the government-regulated red light district. In 1658, it was rebuilt after urban growth and the Great Fire of 1657 forced it from its original location. Initially meant to curtail the tastes of the urban nouveau riche merchants, the entertainment offered here attracted members of all classes. They mingled in brothels, tea houses, and theaters. The merchant class, in particular, now had the means to support a vibrant culture. This newfound leisure time found an outlet in pleasure seeking. We see the rise of a new class of female entertainers, the geisha, as well as kabuki theater and a type of puppet theater known as bunraku. There was an interest in fashion, art, and literature.

In this environment, a new mass culture arose. Artists began focusing on the people and places of these entertainment districts. Their subjects were samurai, geisha, prostitutes, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, and even landscapes. This culture encompassed music, calligraphy, literature, painting, and theater. It became known as ukiyo, “floating world,” an ironic allusion to the early Buddhist term for “sorrowful” or “transient” world.

Three Kabuki Actors Playing Hanetsuki, Utagawa Kuniyasu, 1823

Ukiyo culture involved many different art forms, but the woodblock prints are the most prominent and are associated closely with this cultural movement. They were dubbed ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world.” Ukiyo-e was considered “low” art with its erotic or scandalous themes. This was art for mass consumption and was not meant for the elite upper classes of Japanese society. But the prints were admired for their artistic quality and the technical skill necessary to create them. They soon became popular throughout the social order. Artists moved beyond the initial eroticism and drew inspiration from historical and contemporary literary sources. Ukiyo-e expanded to reflect the tastes and concerns of Japanese society. Woodblock prints became a means by which the average person could keep up-to-date on fashion, natural wonders, and famous people. Artists wished to capture the emotions of everyday lives. They wanted to create visual memories of pleasurable times so they could look fondly upon them.

Travelers passing Mount Fuji, From "The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō", Utagawa Hiroshige, ca. 1833

Though woodblocks had been used for centuries, it was the ukiyo-e artists who improved upon the techniques. Creating a woodblock print was a collaboration among people with different skills. The publisher coordinated the work of the artists and took care of marketing. The artists created the designs and drew them in ink on paper. Others carved the design into woodblocks. The printer applied the ink and printed it on handmade paper. In the beginning, they were monochromatic, primarily black and white, with perhaps some hand coloring. Though begun in the 17th century, ukiyo-e would reach its artistic peak in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. By then, works were layered in printed color with embossing and variations of paper texture.

Ukiyo-e woodblock printing allowed for mass production, and large quantities of artwork could be published and distributed at a low cost. (The Library of Congress alone has nearly 2000 prints.) This art was both readily accessible by most people and yet sophisticated. It captured the fashionable and the chic. It lasted the entire Tokugawa shogunate, but by the Meiji Restoration in 1868, interest began to wan. Yet this coincided with the opening of Japan to the West and a brand new international market developed to replace the lack of domestic interest. Europeans were interested in this art form, and ukiyo-e influenced many great artists. It is said that van Gogh and Monet were both inspired by the ukiyo-e artwork. And it would influence 20th-century modern art. Frank Lloyd Wright, the great American architect, professed a deep appreciation of woodblock prints and utilized the principles of ukiyo-e in his work.

And most of all, ukiyo-e enabled merchants and artisans to attain a status beyond the strict, traditional social order as proscribed by the shoguns.

Perhaps the most iconic and well-known of the ukiyo-e prints is the "Under the Wave off Kanagawa," simply referred to as the "Great Wave," by the artist Katsushika Hokusai, ca. 1830-32.


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