Uniquely Japanese- Ukiyo 浮世

A ukiyo-e (woodblock print) of a women's public bath house from early 1800s, by Torii Kiyonaga

In the last couple of weeks I have written a couple of blogs about ukiyo. One about ukiyo-e, woodblock prints of the Edo Period and one about Ukiyo, an excellent experience of story-telling and adventure in Melbourne. (Follow the links to read the blogs). During my research for these two stories I read quite a bit about the meaning of ukiyo and thought I would dig a little deeper for a better understanding of this word. It is seldom used these days, except in the case of ukiyo-e, however like many Japanese words and cultural concepts I found this one to be difficult to understand. Not so much the meaning, on face value, but the nuance and sexual connotation. Like many aspects of Japanese culture, it is so removed from my own, and many other’s cultural understanding of sex, pleasure and “acceptable society” that I think the true meaning is often lost in translation.

Wikipedia definition: Ukiyo (浮世, “floating, fleeting, or transient world”) describes the urban lifestyle, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects, of the Edo-period Japan (1600–1867). … In its modern usage, the term ukiyo “The Floating World” refers more to a state of being: living in the moment, being detached from the bothers of life.

The kanji that make up the word 浮 uki and 世 yo mean uki- to float, to become cheerful, to become loose or unsteady, to feel out of it or to be frivolous and yo- generation, the world, society, public, the times or era, but usually only in compound kanji, not by itself. So floating world is a reasonably straight-forward explanation, however when you consider the other possible translations and look at the “world” it is referring to, it seems it’s meaning is both profound and subtle.

The “world” is Edo Period Japan, specifically Edo (Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto. During this time in history there was peace in Japan, and no wars meant prosperity for many that had not enjoyed it before this time. The samurai class were no longer being employed to protect land borders from other clans as Japan had been unified by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The merchant class, previously the lowliest on the caste system ladder, experienced upward mobility and became socially ambitious. They became wealthy and had time to indulge in an unprecedented style of urban living. This “Edo pop-culture” lifestyle of pleasurable pursuits included geisha, the arts, music, poetry, tea ceremony, sumo, calligraphy and, of course, red light districts. Entertainment and festivals and hedonistic lifestyle choices became not only accessible but completely fashionable and popular to pursue. I perceive all of these things to be those that make up my concept of Edo Period Japan. All the beautiful, glamorous and stylised aspects that are somewhat retained in Japan today, and that developed during a time of complete isolation from the rest of the world.

The part that I believe is often misunderstood or misrepresented is the sexual aspect. I have written before about red light districts, oiran (highly paid prostitutes) and geisha, and I think it is hard for many people to be able to look at these woman (and a few men) without passing modern and Western judgement upon them. My ever developing understanding of this period of Japanese history and the way it seamlessly meanders into modern life in Japan today would lead me to think that the lack of a sexually demonising religion (Catholic Church, I’m looking at you)… allows people a degree of freedom to participate in pleasurable activities with out guilt or fear of retribution. The fact that you could potentially read ukiyo as “out of it society” or “loose generation” speaks volumes. I love this word and I really love the image it conjures in my mind of the beautiful fleeting and transient moment we enjoy and call life.

If you would like to read more about geisha, oiran and other misunderstood women in Japan, here is a link. As I said, it is a developing knowledge and I am always open to interpretations, opinions and other information. Feel free to comment or share anything you think may be relevant.

Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukiyo

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