by Carson Rogers
Ukiyo is Japanese for “the floating world.” It is a term that has multiple meanings and is used throughout most of Japan’s history. But it is most closely identified with the Tokugawa period, used to describe both its overall culture and its art. Before the Tokugawa period ukiyo was used by monks to describe a world of sorrow and misery that was ever changing. Tokugawa Japan, however, was characterized not by pain, but by its thirst for pleasure. Ukiyo during this period came to describe a world of abundance, a world where every desire could be bought, a world that was modernizing in its own way and always seemed to be changing. Out of this floating world came some of Japan’s most famous and influential art, which is still displayed and prized today for its quality and beauty. It was the distinct worldview of the floating world that produced these extraordinary works and aesthetics.
This new version of the floating world grew amid the Tokugawa era. The paradox of Tokugawa rule was that, for all of its attempts at trying to control the population, to prod it away from extravagance and toward obedience, the period became known for pleasure seeking. It was the side effects of Tokugawa rule that would define the era—namely, peace and prosperity. For centuries the country had been fractured and devastated by constant conflict, but now it was united under a central government. The lasting peace allowed the Japanese people to shift their minds away from war and toward their quality of life. Peace brought with it an economic boom, as resources no longer tied up in constant warfare could be repurposed to improving the country’s economy. It was peace that allowed for downtime, and prosperity that allowed Japanese citizens to afford new luxuries. Together, these fueled the new floating world—a world filled with brothels, tea houses, and packed theatres. Tokugawa Japan became a society with a desire to consume. Peace and prosperity did not just help turn people into consumers, it started to undermine the social hierarchies the Shogunate worked so hard to preserve.
The image of samurai, warriors of honour who would endure anything in the service of their masters, became almost obsolete during the Tokugawa period. The period ushered in 260 years of peace, and the absence of conflict caused an identity crisis for a warrior class that depended upon it. Samurai during this period mostly transformed into the administrators of the Tokugawa state, with only a symbolic status as warriors. The new prosperity also challenged the position of the samurai at the top of Japanese social hierarchy. The vast majority of samurai missed out on the profits from the growing Japanese economy. Income for samurai was generated from a stipend, a quantity of rice owed to them based on land they previously held. While the rice stipend provided subsistence, it failed to provide prosperity in a country that was quickly becoming more reliant on hard currency. Heavy inflation, which hit Japan during this period, proved especially painful for samurai, as their stipend remained stagnant while costs for everything else continued to rise.
Townspeople, known as chonin, were the merchants and artisans that made up the urban population. They found themselves at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but chonin would not face the same economic struggles as peasants and samurai. They were the main benefactors of the new Tokugawa system—prosperity brought on by increased agricultural production, an improved transport system spanning the country, a boom in urban population, and the increase in commerce that comes with a successful economy. The hard limit on foreign trade also helped create a strong local market, which was extremely beneficial during the first half of Tokugawa rule. While the merchant class held no traditional power in Japanese society, their power grew with the economy. Their wealth started to rival that of the daimyos, and they were often relied on to provide loans and exchange future rice crops for hard currency. The Tokugawa period saw some merchants rise to become part of the wealthy elite, but also saw many others form the core of a new middle class that had a major impact on Japanese culture.
With the new prosperity also came a new consumerism. Citizens of Tokugawa Japan could purchase many goods to satisfy nearly any wish, and this activity primarily took place in pleasure quarters or entertainment quarters. These were areas found on the outskirts of major cities, where one could find brothels, theatres, tea houses, public baths, and food vendors. They were the truest representation of what the Japanese considered to be the “floating world” at this time. This is where all classes came to fulfill their desires—although Samurai were banned from entering, they patronized the pleasure quarters the same as anyone else. These quarters were detested by the Shogunate, but when authorities realized that they could not get rid of them, they instead opted just to try and control them. The popularity of the pleasure quarters represented a new consumerist drive in the Japanese public, a public that was looking to enjoy what the floating world had to offer.
That desire did not just manifest in the simple pleasures of the entertainment quarters. It also was represented in the increased demand for cultural goods. Tokugawa period cultural goods were unique for a variety of reasons. Wood-block prints, Kabuki theatre, and haiku all originated in this era and became Japan’s most recognized and impressive cultural achievements. What makes them unique is their development, mostly due to the support of the common people. These aesthetics and art practices grew out of what is known as chonin culture, or townspeople culture, because it was mostly the common urban population that patronized these arts. They were cultural products intended for the common folk, as compared with fine art in Europe at the time, which was almost solely patronized by the wealthy elite. The intended audience had a great effect on the aesthetics of these amazing cultural products, but so did the Tokugawa shogunate’s censorship, which limited what could be depicted in these works. Both of these forces worked to shape the aesthetic of Tokugawa era art.
Under the Wave of Kanagawa is one of the most recognizable works not just in Japanese history, but in all of art history. The woodblock print depicts boats helplessly floating underneath a large wave that seems likely to crash right on top of them, the colours of the wave mirrored by the snow capped Mount Fuji in the background. The print was done by one of the best known woodblock print artists, Hokusai. This Ukiyo-e print was produced near the end of the Tokugawa period, and shows the development of the art form, but its origins are much different than the more common depictions of Japanese for which the medium is most often known.
Ukiyo-e translates to “pictures of the floating world,” and it is most often applied to the art of woodblock printing, which was extremely popular in Japan during this period. The process required a team, not a single artist. One would design the print, another would carve the blocks, and another would handle the actual printing process. Initially these were only printed in black and white, but by the mid-18th century colour prints had been perfected. The fact that they could be printed again and again, as opposed to being a one-off piece, meant they became an affordable and heavily produced cultural product. Common Japanese citizens could easily afford to purchase ukiyo-e prints, and it was popular in the Tokugawa period to collect them for decorating one’s house. Series were often produced to encourage collectors, an idea pushed by the publishing houses who commissioned and sold the prints.
There are many sources suggested for the origins of ukiyo-e prints, but the art form’s original popularity stems from its use as advertisement. The most popular prints in the beginning were those of courtesans and kabuki actors. Prints were used by brothels and theatres to promote what took place inside the buildings, and publishers would produce images of famous actors and courtesans to be collected by their adoring fans. Many of these images would define the aesthetics of ukiyo-e. The sensual depiction of courtesans and the abstract portraits of kabuki actors were distinctly Japanese and would go on to influence European artists as well. These images also represented the blended purpose of ukiyo-e prints, a high-art form whose production was rooted in commercial interests.
The popularity of ukiyo-e art surged because of its easy access and affordability, but its aesthetics changed over the Tokugawa period for another reason. The Tokugawa government heavily censored all cultural products of the era, especially in terms of what could be depicted in ukiyo-e prints. It barred depictions of historical figures and extravagance, as well as anything that was seen as encouraging political dissent or societal disobedience. By 1842, even the popular prints of kabuki actors were banned. In 1804, the ukiyo-e artist Utamaro, famous for his stunning portraits of women, was sentenced to fifty days in shackles for a depiction of former Japanese ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The censorship and arrest affected not only Utamaro, but also his fellow artists and his publishers. It ultimately ended his career, and he died two years after the incident. It is the most famous example of the Shogunate controlling the content of the art form.
These limitations impacted ukiyo-e artists, but it also shaped the art form’s development. By the early 19th century, the content of popular ukiyo-e prints had drastically changed toward depicting everyday life and landscapes. These depictions showed the daily lives of Japanese commoners and so easily skirted restrictions about depicting extravagance, and the popular desire for landscapes was spurred by the new travel boom felt throughout the country. This shift in style produced ukiyo-e’s two best known artists, Hokusai and Hiroshige. Both are known for their stunning landscapes, although each had his own distinctive style. Hokusai’s Thrity-six views of Mount Fuji series includes The Great Wave, and was the series that made him famous across Japan. Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido depicted life at the stations along Japan’s most important highway. Prints from both of these series are among the most famous works of ukiyo-e. By this time the Tokugawa period was nearing its end, and ukiyo-e prints were massively successful across the country and in Europe as well. Ukiyo-e was starting to be treated as a high art form, though the series format employed by Hokusai and Hiroshige demonstrated that it remained firmly rooted in a mass culture that was largely supported by the merchant middle class.
Another important art form that emerged during the Tokugawa era, one that rose out of chonin culture but became defined by Tokugawa censorship, was kabuki theatre. Its origins trace back to a dance troupe, led by a women called Okuni, around 1603. The troupe performed an erotic dance style known as nembutsu odori that had its roots in 10th century Buddhist practices and folk rituals. The dance was unique and took on the name kabuku, which means “to move erratically.” Very quickly the style caught on, and troupes of kabuki dancers began appearing across Kyoto. These early performers often danced in order to advertise their services as courtesans, hence the erotic style of dancing and its popularity. In this early stage, kabuki was a dance and drama performed solely by women. Theatres designated for kabuki began appearing in the pleasure quarters, and people of all classes would attend the performances.
The conservative Tokugawa Shogunate did not approve of the newly popular theatres with their promotion of promiscuity and the fact that commoners attended these shows alongside samurai under the same roof. The Shogunate began to take control over kabuki. In 1629, women were banned from performing kabuki altogether in an attempt to eliminate its overt sexuality. This lead to yaro-kabuki, or “young man kabuki.” Young men were used to portray the female characters, but this failed to solve the Shogunate’s problem. These young male actors brought out the same erotic desires, and some were also available for prostitution. The social ills the theatre caused only seemed to get worse with yaro-kabuki, and in 1652 young men were also banned from performing. Other censorship included control over the content of the plays—here too depictions of historical figures, politics, and current events were banned. The Shogunate tried banning samurai from attending the theatres, but they simply ignored the ban.
As was the case with ukiyo-e, this censorship had a fundamental impact on kabuki’s development. As male actors took over, the performances’ sexual tones were replaced by drama, their dancing replaced by acrobatics. Kabuki plays became more refined, actors become more serious about depicting their roles and playwrights began telling more elaborate stories. Theatres became more complex, acts were introduced, stage props became more detailed, and draw curtains were added. While Tokugawa censorship was meant to limit kabuki theatre, it helped it further develop as an artistic form. The policies meant to help curtail its popularity only ended up increasing its influence.
The Tokugawa Shogunate did not just bring with it a new political system, it ushered in a whole new culture. The Tokugawa government desperately tried to shape that culture as much as possible by enforcing censorship, controlling daimyo, limiting foreign trade, and rigidly applying social hierarchies. These policies undoubtedly worked to shape Japanese culture, and the aesthetics of Japanese art, but forces outside of the government’s control also played major roles. It was the economic boom that created a new middle class, the chonin, which resulted in a mass culture that drove the art and aesthetics of the period. Ukiyo-e prints and kabuki theatre are two prominent examples of this mass culture. They are are also great examples of the effect of Tokugawa politics on artistic aesthetics. This is why Tokugawa Japan serves as such a powerful example of cultural development. Politics, class, economics, and social hierarchies all have a major hand in defining a culture. Culture has a reactionary relationship to all of these things—it holds the power to shape any of them, but it will always be dominated by material reality. That material reality, the politics of the Shogunate, and changing class dynamics all helped produce and shape the stunning aesthetics and art of the Tokugawa period.
Carson Rogers is a writer and librarian living in the Canadian prairies. His writing focuses on politics, history, and culture.