“The Floating World” refers to the pleasure-seeking, urban lifestyle of the Edo period of Japan (1600-1868). This period of relative stability under Tokugawa Shogunate was one of prolific cultural output, especially in large cities such as the capital, Edo, which is now Tokyo.
Haiku poetry found increased popularity during this period, propagated by master poets such as Matsuo Bashō. Haiku was developed from Haikai, an earlier form of writing that was derived from puns and satire. Bashō spent much of his life elevating Haikai into a more serious literary genre, playing an essential role in producing the modern Haiku. The poet’s work was hugely popular in Japan during their isolation period and found a global audience long after his death.
Around the same time as Bashō was writing, another writer, Ihara Saikaku, was publishing works of Ukiyozōshi (books of the Floating World). Written in vernacular Japanese, as opposed to the Chinese and classical Japanese that the elite utilised, these books first focused on the pleasure quarters of Edo, before branching out into tales of the townspeople and Samurai. Due to their subject matter, Ukiyozōshi was not considered to be high literature and was not widely read by the upper classes, though they did become popular with the ordinary people of Japan.
Another important aspect of the Floating World was Ukiyo-e, a genre of woodblock printing that flourished during the Edo period. Woodblock printing was not new, having originated as early as the eighth century, though printing was restricted due to the high costs involved. By the 17th century, mass production had become possible, allowing a much greater proportion of the population to purchase prints. In its earlier period, from the late 17th to early 18th centuries, Ukiyo-e most commonly depicted ordinary people, in a similar vein to Ukiyozōshi, with dancers, courtesans and the city itself taking centre stage. Later period Ukiyo-e illustrated nature and landscapes, moving away from the luxury and excess of the Floating World. This later period’s work was particularly influenced the Impressionism movement in Europe, as is evidenced by the framing of much of Claude Monet’s work.
Theatre also thrived during the Edo period. Both Kabuki (live actors) and Bunraku’s (puppets) live performances enthralled the townspeople, to the extent that Samurai would sometimes watch in disguise, as their attendance at plays was strictly prohibited. Kabuki theatre evolved over the period, starting out as parodies of Buddhist prayers performed by all-female casts, to the more familiar form of all-male performers with more serious, dramatic performances. This alteration reflected the same societal change that impacted Ukiyo-e, the move away from luxury and excess to a more moralistic, reserved art form.
‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, Accessed: wikipedia.com
One of the most famous examples of late period Ukiyo-e – Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1831