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FAQ: What was the "Floating World" (浮世)?


The Floating World (ukiyo) was an expression of the new economy and social ambitions of the common townspeople of the Edo period (1615-1868). It was, specifically, a world of play and entertainment in Japan's three main cities (Edo [now called Tokyo], Osaka, and Kyoto). It could also be argued that this "world" was also a state of mind or an ethos, a characteristic spirit of the chônin ("persons of the town"). Although the activities and occupations varied, the participants focused particularly upon the pleasure quarters and entertainment districts. These areas of play were ritualized milieu offering escape from the constraints that the samurai estate forced upon the growing and increasingly more economically powerful merchant class.

The Floating World embraced much of what constituted everyday life, but it especially celebrated the insider's world of the courtesan, kabuki and puppet theaters, teahouses, specialty clothing and accessories shops, and festivals. Broadly speaking, traditional woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) depicting the Floating World were an artistic expression of the new-found wealth and plebeian tastes of the merchant class (all proscribed within certain limits defined periodically by the shôgun's government, called the bakufu). In all its imaginative variations, this world became the primary subject matter of ukiyo-e prints and paintings during the Edo and Meiji (1868-1912) periods.

e (prints) Ukiyo (floating) The term ukiyo-e (浮世) is composed of three Japanese characters: The first two are shown on the left. The top character is read as uki, which means "floating," "cheerful," or "frivolous." The second character reads yo, which means "world," "generation," "age," "era," or "reign." The third character (shown at the right) reads e and means "picture," "drawing, " "painting," or "print." Thus the standard translation of ukiyo-e (浮世絵) is "Pictures of the Floating World." In its usual sense ukiyo suggested "transitory world," but it also had such connotations as "everyday world," "present reality," or "world of the here and now." In ukiyo-e prints and paintings there was a special, formalized reality, a combination of stylized artistic conventions shared by most artists and the personal reality of the individual artist, which constituted imaginative retellings of life in the Floating World.

Ukiyo (Sorrowful) There was another character used to write uki (憂世), which means "sorrow," "grief," "distress, " or "melancholy." When that alternate character was used in the compound ukiyo (shown on the left), it meant "sorrowful world" and thus had Buddhist or religious connotations. As with the earlier term for ukiyo, it also implied a "transitory world," but with the implication that the present "reality" was ephemeral, or an illusion, a preparatory stage before a more meaningful afterlife. Many writers have linked the two ways of writing ukiyo as two opposites of the same perception of transitory reality, the religious emphasis being on the sorrow and illusory nature of daily life, the merchant emphasis on temporary escape and enjoyment. Neither view denied the pessimism experienced in an ephemeral world. Other critics argue, however, that the two terms were not actually used interchangeably at first, but became conflated only later in the mid-18th century after ukiyo-e prints and paintings had already become popular. The debate continues over just how closely linked were the two ways of writing ukiyo. ©1999-2019 by John Fiorillo

Bibliographic Suggestion:

  • Kita, S.: "Reconsidering Ukiyo-e," in: Kita, S.: A Hidden Treasure: Japanese Prints from the Carnegie Museum of Art. Pittsburgh, 1996, pp. 15-33.

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