Art of the Ukiyo, the Floating World

This entry is part 5 of 17 in the series GDB & Route 66

Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating… refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world.

Asai Ryoi, Tales of the Floating World, approx. 1666

Once “the floating world” referred to the Buddhist concept of detachment, but by the 17th century it had come to mean a hedonistic approach to life’s pleasures.

“In the Buddhist context, ‘ukiyo’ was written with characters that meant ‘suffering world,’ which is the concept that desire leads to suffering and that’s the root of all the problems in the world,” according to Laura W. Allen, the Asian Art Museum‘s curator of Japanese art. “In the 17th century, that term was turned on its head and the term ‘ukiyo’ was written with new characters to mean ‘floating world.’ The concept of the floating world was ignoring the problems that might have existed in a very strictly regulated society and abandoning yourself, bobbing along on the current of pleasure.” A creative boom developed in the “pleasure district” of the yoshiwara in Edo (today Tokyo), amid the tea houses and the theaters and the brothels.

looking up at the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge
It is an impressive bridge.

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco has a special exhibit on ukiyo-e, images of the floating world, so after a brisk walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, just to say I did, I made a visit. And I took pictures.

The art, despite its often-disturbing subject matter (more on that in a moment), is exquisite. This is when new artistic techniques were developed and refined, inventing woodblock prints and taking them from simple, mass-produced derivative images (the college dorm poster of the shogunate) to the rich and detailed masterworks of dozens of blocks of color. Kabuki became a popular entertainment and made celebrities of its actors, both the men and the men playing women (as in Shakespeare’s theater world, male actors played female roles). The highest-ranked courtesans set fashion and were featured in their own celebrity series of prints, the Kardashians and Paris Hiltons of their day. These prints, once sold for the price of a bowl of noodles, are today highly collectible art.

And they did produce some amazing art. (I apologize for the poor photography of some; light was understandably dim and of course flash was prohibited. Click to enlarge and see the captions.)

The guidebook pictured above is Yoshiwara Maruhadaka, or The Yoshiwara Stripped Bare. (Har, har.) A guidebook might have been quite useful; this was a major industry. While the moat-side whores were cheap, the high-end courtesans in full-service houses, with dancers and musicians and fine dining, might cost $13,000 a night in today’s dollars. It’s a lot like Vegas — you can find exactly what you can afford to buy.

And the government didn’t miss an opportunity; everything was taxed.

The ratio of men to women in Edo was severely unbalanced, due to the requirements that lords spend time in Edo with their retinues of warriors. This relative scarcity of women led to a thriving industry in prostitution. Samurai (identifiable in the handscroll pictures by the two swords only they could carry) were ostensibly forbidden to enter the yoshiwara. But obviously that was an impractical expectation /eye roll/ and a major loss of market, so sedge hats were rented so visiting samurai could conceal their identities in the street.


And visit they did. Do you see the writing on the screen behind this couple and their bevy of servants pouring sake?

With my special knowledge and stylish ways, I have come to this garden where I constantly water the flowers, awaiting the appearance of the dragon-phoenix.

“Water the flowers,” eh? Is that what they’re calling it these days.

a beautiful prostitute in a robe painted with images of torture in hell
the Hell Courtesan

The Hell Courtesan

One fascinating figure of legend is the Hell Courtesan. Convinced she was condemned for her profession, she adorned herself in a robe featuring Enma (the king of hell) and many tortures of the afterlife. Allegedly she met the monk Ikkyu (a real historical figure of the fifteenth century) and ultimately achieved enlightenment. She is a frequent artistic subject: Practically speaking, her myth is a wonderful way for artists to avoid censorship by portraying a beautiful woman in a seductive setting or post while passing it off as a religious theme!

aristocratic woman in kimono, carved of wood
a Shinto goddess or kami, carved in wood

Other Art

I had not realized that the Japanese had not begun to represent their kami in physical form until after Buddhism arrived with images of the Buddha, so the first Shinto representations appeared in the 9th century or so.

two carved wooden figures, holding a bag of wind and beating thunder drums
Fuujin (wind god) and Raijin (thunder god) images, probably from a gate

Art and Us

It’s always intriguing to see what we bring to our view of art. One woman in my ukiyo-e tour group wanted to know why the man in the picture was under a blanket with the woman. (Prostitution, is the simple answer.) Another woman declared that since she couldn’t tell the difference between the man and woman in a picture, it was evidence of lesbian activity. (Just because you can’t tell the difference doesn’t mean no one else can; that speaks more to one’s knowledge of the artistic aesthetic and style than to the subjects’ sexual habits.)

But why was the subject matter disturbing, as I said? Because despite the gorgeous costumes and the tiered elitism and the celebrity and the glamour, it’s still really about forced prostitution. Many of the courtesans were sold into their positions, and others were held by debt bondage, charged for the expenses of their work. They were held to quotas and if they didn’t make the minimum, their debt was increased. When a child servant came of working age, probably 12 or 13, her virginity was sold at a high price. And when a courtesan became too aged to be profitable, she generally became a servant for the brothel.

Ooku, volume 1

A few years ago I discovered a manga series called Ooku, set in a shogunate where disease killed off most of the male population, leaving women to assume the dominant roles in society. It’s an interesting alternate history for a number of reasons, but I was struck by the images of the yoshiwara in the story, full of men sitting silently in latticed windows for women to view and select. How wrong that is, I thought, and yet I’d long been familiar with the concept of women behind lattices. It needed the perspective shift of gender reversal for me to realize anew the inherent absurdity and indignity of it all.

Still, it’s a fascinating setting, full of ritual and protocol and concealing glamour. Susan Spann’s Shinobi Mysteries include some of these locations, if you’re interested, and someday I might venture to write there myself.

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One Comment

  1. The pictures are gorgeous, and I’m very intrigued by the yoshiwara guide book. It’s really amazing when things like that are preserved. Little minutiae such as expected gratuities are something I find really interesting.

    Also, I’d neve heard of the Hell Courtesan (or have forgotten about her), and that is a cool tidbit to learn about.

    Of course, you’re completely right about the disturbing aspects of forced prostitution being a cornerstone to all of it. It makes me wonder if that aspect was explored much in the exhibit or in works from the time period…

    Anyway, thanks for the post! As I’m not likely to get out to San Fran anytime soon, it was great to read about it!

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