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The Floating World of Edo Japan

Three types of beauties in Edo, set of three

Three types of beauties in Edo, set of three, by Chobunsai Eishi, Japanese (1756–1829), 1770–1829. Hanging scroll, Ink and colors on silk. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60D81.

The Floating World
During Japan’s Edo period (1615–1868) the phrase "the floating world" (ukiyo) evoked an imagined universe of wit, stylishness, and extravagance—with overtones of naughtiness, hedonism, and transgression. Implicit was a contrast to the humdrum of everyday obligation. The concept of the floating world began in the Japanese heartland, migrated eastward, and came to full flower in Edo (present-day Tokyo), where its main venues were popular Kabuki theaters and red-light districts. Each offered an array of rich sensory experiences to the fraction of the populace able to partake of them directly. The floating world also afforded vicarious pleasure to countless others throughout the Japanese islands, for whom it was experienced second-hand through theater, song, story, gossip, and pictures.

Under Japan’s last ruling military clan, the Tokugawa, the rapid growth of cities gave rise to a lively urban culture. Increasingly literate, wealthy, and sophisticated, the townspeople of Edo became heroes in high-spirited stories made up by their peers. Fashionable and often bawdy, these tales became the basis for a flood of advertisements for the floating world, in the form of inexpensive woodblock prints and guidebooks. Less numerous—but no less important—were paintings of the same subjects catering to wealthier people. Such paintings, which employed costly jewel-like pigments and intensive labor, could be bought ready-made or, more commonly, commissioned by a patron.

The Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter
The sole licensed red-light district in the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo), the Yoshiwara was a walled and moated compound of about twenty acres. First established in 1617 near the city’s center, the Yoshiwara was relocated to the northeast forty years later. During the quarter’s heyday, from the late seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries, countless men made the journey—a trip of some two miles—to reach the quarter’s fabled Main Gate (Omon). Within the Yoshiwara’s walls were teahouses, shops, and more than a hundred brothels arranged in a rectangular grid, divided from end to end by a main street, Nakanocho. The streets were lined with logo-like crests and names indicating the locations of brothels and other businesses.

Music, food, and drink were all on offer, but prostitutes were the star attractions of this bustling city within a city. By the end of the eighteenth century, more than 4,000 prostitutes worked in the Yoshiwara. Ranked by brothel owners according to skill, cost, and services, the most expensive were elite courtesans, whose professional names were passed down from a woman to her successor within the brothel. Rigorously trained in music, calligraphy, poetry, and other refined arts, these women were accessible only through strict protocols, requiring huge payments and tips at three preliminary meetings. Other prostitutes sat in latticed showrooms, on view to prospective clients. At the bottom of the hierarchy were moat-side prostitutes, whose services were quick and inexpensive. Many Yoshiwara prostitutes, including those promoted by brothel owners to the highest ranks, started life in impoverished homes in the countryside. Taken from their families, they were brought to the quarter, trained, and typically bound to brothels during the term of a ten-year contract.

Given the task of depicting the Yoshiwara's women in paintings and prints, artists focused on distinctions of rank, costume, and conduct, mostly overlooking the psychological and physical consequences of this system of forced and strictly controlled prostitution. Photographs of Yoshiwara brothels and showrooms at the end of the nineteenth century better convey the captive lives of these women—a reminder of the tension between fact and fantasy in depictions of the floating world.

Art of the Floating World
By 1720, the population of Edo had reached a million people. The rising popularity of floating-world entertainments unleashed an explosion of creative expression, as artists and writers competed to celebrate popular Kabuki plays and famous attractions in the pleasure quarter. Mass-produced pictures of the floating world appeared in guidebooks and as single-sheet prints, which were available at roughly the cost of a bowl of noodles. More expensive signed paintings, made by the same artists who designed floating-world prints, were available to wealthy merchants and samurai. Although officially prohibited from entering the pleasure quarter, many samurai visited incognito and acquired paintings of floating-world themes.

Filled with beauties and actors in fabulous costumes, floating-world pictures invited escapist—often erotic—fantasies through virtual visits to these venues, and spread detailed knowledge of their customs and stars. Many Edo-period viewers appreciated the pictures for their up-to-the-minute content, including information on styles and witty references to popular culture. One important goal was to reinforce the celebrity of famous actors and courtesans. Exactingly rendered hairstyles and fashions that change from year to year lend these pictures a documentary flair—but the pictures’ allure is highly symbolic and artificial, not realistic.