Ukiyo: The Floating World
As you look more into Japanese history, especially the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), you will quickly come across a lot of woodblock prints. These are generally referred to as ukiyo-e (浮世絵), or pictures of the “floating world.”
So what is the “floating world?” That’s what I’m here to explain today.
What The Word Means
I’ve already said that ukiyo (浮世) is generally translated as “floating world,” but there’s a bit more to it than that. There’s actually a Buddhist term that is a homonym (it is written differently, but is pronounced the same), that is used in a very Buddhist sense. It is used in the phrase ukiyo hanare (浮き世離れ), which can be translated as “free from worldliness.” This is a huge idea in Buddhism, as the goal in this religion is to become unattached. Attachment leads to suffering, so it’s better the separate yourself from all attachment to reach enlightenment.
The word ukiyo is actually kind of making fun of this idea. Ukiyo generally referred to the entertainment and pleasure districts in cities. This is where one would go to find something to drink and spend some time with the prostitutes. Considering the Buddhist term talking about separating oneself from worldliness, this place was pretty worldly. But the term still makes these districts seem very distinct, and we’ll get back to that in a bit.
First, we should go over a bit of history to understand these red light districts a bit more. The Tokugawa Shogunate (or the bakufu, as everyone calls that government) was well-known for being incredibly strict. Society at the time had a very rigid structure. Samurai were at the top, of course. Then people were ranked in this order: peasant, artisan, merchant. (We always remembered it with the word SPAM) If this order is confusing, notice how the people at the top are people who make things. Samurai are government officials and make laws. Peasants make food. Artisans make things, but they have to use what someone else has already made. Merchants only sell. They contribute nothing to society, so they are at the bottom.
Now imagine where an entertainer would fall in this hierarchy. I’ll tell you. They don’t.
People like actors and prostitutes weren’t even on the social structure. The government did not like them. The bakufu ended up being incredibly strict with people of this status, and you can see it with the censorship of many bunraku and kabuki plays. The government also didn’t want prostitutes wandering around wherever they wanted, so they were confined to specific pleasure quarters. This kind of bottled all of them up into one place, which adds to the idea of these areas being a separate world. The most famous of these quarters was Yoshiwara (close to present day Asakusa in Tokyo), with large districts in other major cities like Osaka and Kyoto.
Different Forms of Art
The “floating world” is probably most famous for being depicted in woodblock prints. There were also paintings, but it was mostly prints, ukiyo-e. Prints were very popular at the time, as they could be sold to the masses. Even if the print you wanted was by one of the incredibly famous painters, you could still get it for a reasonable price because it was not the original copy.
These woodblock prints would depict famous kabuki actors, geisha, or even just scenes of city life (usually with beautiful girls involved), and they were very popular. If you’ve seen a woodblock print that is more of a city scene, you’ve seen what is called ukiyo-e (浮世絵), or a picture of the “floating world.” Some of these paintings can become more explicit, but a great number of them aren’t. I’ve heard a lot of people who learn about ukiyo-e recently think they are all like this, but they aren’t. The genre is much wider than that.
The “floating world” was also depicted in writing. One of the most famous authors was Saikaku, who is known for his satire. He wrote about different people associated with these pleasure quarters. He liked to make absurd social commentaries through his writing, and using satire was a way he avoiding being censored by the bakufu.
There were also depictions of the “floating world” in bunraku and kabuki plays. Many of these stories were centered around men who visited brothels or fell in love with courtesans. Bunraku and kabuki plays were written for the common people, who were the ones visiting this district. It’s not surprising to see stories centered around that part of the city.
The whole idea of the “floating world” is that of illusion. When one goes to these different quarters, they enter into another world. It’s a way to escape their real life and spend time not being judged by the people around them. Of course, there’s the illusion that the beautiful woman they are paying to spend time with actually loves them. But the “floating world” can kind of be compared to escapism.
The people who frequented these areas the most were the chōnin (町人) or the artisans and merchants. City life had to be somewhat mundane, and many marriages at the time were arranged for financial or social gain. The “floating world” was a place they could go to ignore life for a little bit. And, from what I can tell, it was actually kind of expected for most men. Even samurai who were not allowed to go to places like that would still don a disguise and frequent it.
So when you find a woodblock print of a city scene to look at, remember that it probably isn’t a good depiction of reality. But it is a good depiction of where people wanted to go to escape their normal lives.
If you’d like to learn more about Japanese history (including the Tokugawa Period), check out my article Japanese History in About Six Minutes. Also be sure to check out our daily podcast to help improve your Japanese.