The Minneapolis Institute of Arts - Museum Home Page
The Art of Asia
History & Maps
Explore the Collection
Explore the Collection

Video: Pictures of the Floating World - Transcript

300 years ago in Japan, a writer of popular fiction described the lifestyle of a newly evolving class of people in Japan, the townspeople.

"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,
refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current;
this is what we call the Ukiyo--the floating world."

"Ukiyo" in Japanese was originally written with two characters: "UKI" meaning sadness or misery, and "YO" meaning life. The term described the Buddhist concept of human existence on Earth as painful and fleeting.

As a humorous play on the old Buddhist concept, the new, exciting urban world of the 17th century was also called "Ukiyo." However, by changing the first character from "sadness" to "floating," the word came to suggest the happy, floating world of the prosperous townspeople.

For the first time in Japanese history, a rising class of city dwellers had the financial means to support an art of their own - an art which reflected their interests and tastes. These were called "Ukiyo-e" or "pictures of the floating world." Mass produced woodblock prints or books were affordable to almost everyone. On the other hand, a wealthy merchant could commission an expensive painting on silk.

A Beauty of the SouthThe Minneapolis Institute of Arts has one of the finest collections of Ukiyo-e prints and paintings in the United States, a selection of which is on view in the galleries. As members of the floating world, Ukiyo-e artists found inspiration in the people around them. They reveled in the endless array of characters to be found on the city streets: housewives, mountainous sumo wrestlers, street-side tea girls, and lowly water-sellers. There were colorful festivals, outings to enjoy the cherry blossoms, or fireworks on a hot summer night.

The most popular subjects, however, were the beautiful women of the entertainment districts, and the dashing actors of the Kabuki theatres. Officially members of the lowest class of society, they became the celebrated heroes of popular culture.

Ukiyo-e artists produced romanticized glimpses into the licensed quarters where sensual beauties lounged in elegant and splendid robes, promenaded through streets with their child attendants, or entertained wealthy young rakes.

The Calligraphy LessonWhile men were attracted to the suggestive poses and physical perfection of these beautiful women, their wives studied the prints for the latest fashions. They took great interest in the courtesans' elegant and dramatic robes, complicated hairstyles, affected gestures, and the latest consumer products. In addition to setting the fashion standards of the day, the women of the entertainment districts were renowned for their wit and intelligence. Cultivated from a very young age, they were skilled in the arts of poetry and calligraphy, music, tea ceremony and flower arrangement. Their casual air of refinement and sumptuous attire captured the imaginations of the townspeople who voraciously collected images of their favorite beauties.

Ichikawa Denzo and Morita Kanya in a Scene Segawa Kikunojo III as Osono
In addition to the women of the entertainment districts, the townspeople also delighted in the daylong Kabuki performances. From its origin as a vulgar dance, Kabuki developed into a sophisticated art form by the 1660's or 70's. Bold and dramatic, Kabuki appealed to the robust tastes of the townspeople. Crowds flocked to see dramas of high action, which starred masculine heroes who overcame villains in dramatic swordplay. They took equal delight in plays of supernatural revenge...or strange, frightening creatures. Created by women, Kabuki originally consisted of sexually suggestive dances. In an attempt to dictate public behavior, however, the government banned women from the stage in 1629. Male actors, called Onnagata, came to specialize in the roles of women, becoming highly skilled and admired performers. By carefully refining their every gesture, they were not only convincing as women, they were quintessentially feminine.

Ukiyo-e, now admired and collected around the world for their handsome designs and beautiful colors, give us a vivid glimpse of the many people who inhabited the floating world.