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What is Ukiyo-e and the Floating World?

Detail of possible Tea house, Kanagawa by Hokusai

Within the history of Japanese art, two terms keep coming up: Ukiyo-e and The Floating World. But what exactly do these terms mean?

Samurai, Geisha, Kabuki art

Well, firstly, they mean more or less the same thing. Ukiyo-e translates as “Floating World Pictures”. This comes from a time when the shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo) demanded that all loyal samurai retainers come to spend half their year in the capital. This was a method of keeping an eye on them and preventing them from having a long enough time to build up a serious force to threaten the shogun back in their home territories. On top of this, new societal classes were imposed with the samurai being elevated to the top of the social pyramid.

Miyamoto Musashi - famous samurai swordsman - printed wall art
A Kabuki actor portrays the famed swordsman Miyamoto Musashi for an audience at an Edo restaurant – by Utagawa Kuniyoshi


As a result, Edo was filled with many bored, fairly wealthy warriors with nothing to do and of course many services sprang up to keep them fed, well-dressed and entertained! They would progress from tea house to shop to restaurant to kabuki theatre to the pleasure district establishments and then start again the next day. This kind of limbo of existence was known as the Floating World and many pictures were made of the interesting, often gaudy or forceful characters that inhabited it and also made to entertain them with stories of myths and legends such as a powerful military leader they might respect or a horrifying ghost to make them shiver!

Ukiyo-e picture from the floating world
A host keeps the party entertained while someone searches for ghosts

The evolution of Ukiyo-e and Japanese art

Of course, at this time, many other art forms flourished such as calligraphy, flower arranging and so on, meaning the idle samurai could meditate for hours on the perfect turn of phrase or arrangement of a stem of flowers.

The “manga” style of drawing also rose into prominence around this time. We tend to think of modern Japanese cartoons as manga, but it was really just the simplified strokes of a kind of sketch that had been used since the 12th century.

Manga of monks examining an elephant
Blind monks examine an elephant by Hanabusa Itchō

The techniques used to create these images were primarily the woodblock or woodcut print and now Ukiyo-e is almost synonymous the style of picture, as opposed to its subject. Many masters of the method arose, including the famous Hokusai and Hiroshige, among many others. They began to move away from the Floating World as a topic and their woodblock prints captured many other stories, symbols, and the beauty of Japan’s people and nature.

Famous Hiroshige woodcut of cranes, lucky Japanese symbol
The graceful crane is a symbol of long life and happiness, and general good fortune in Japan.


At Epic Japan Art we’ve been interested in these great masters and their work but struggled to find a place that supplied large format prints that were reasonably priced. So we decided to solve this problem ourselves and we hope you can benefit too from this!

Please enjoy our Ukiyo-e on this site!

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