The Floating World

What was The Floating World?

The Floating World, or ukiyo, was the name given to the popular entertainment culture of Edo and other Japanese cities during the Edo Period. Ukiyo centred around the rising middle classes and their insatiable appetite for entertainment.

The Floating World originated the Yoshiwara (Red Light) district of Edo, but spread quickly to other Japanese cities, most notably Kyoto and Osaka. Theatres, brothels, teahouses and sumo wrestling matches all became central to the mass entertainment that was sought by Japanese people during the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Samurai, merchants, prostitutes, kabuki actors, geisha and sumo wrestlers all became players in the ukiyo.

Unsurprisingly this elevation of entertainment into a way of life attracted the artists of the time too, and ukiyo-e was born. Ukiyo-e depicted the everyday lives of those who found entertainment, refuge or escapism in The Floating World. The woodblock prints captured the mood of the times and made the artists who produced them household names across Japan.

Onnayu (Ladies' Bath) by Torii Kiyonaga

Onnayu (Ladies' Bath)

Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815)

Teahouse in Shinagawa by Torii Kiyonaga

Teahouse in Shinagawa c1783

Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815)

* top image: Kabuki theatre in Edo, with actors on stage and audience,
used under license from © The British Museum