Floating world

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Nicola Esposito sent in the following observations and questions:

What is the etymology of ukiyo 浮世, the "floating world" known in the West mostly thanks to its depictions by artists such as Hiroshige, Hokusai and others?

While perusing the website of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, I discovered that the origins of ukiyo lie in a homophone of 浮世 denoting the "transient world" of Buddhist tradition.  The page does not offer any other detail, but from what I gather that homophone should be ukiyo 憂世, whose literal meaning should be closer to something like "unhappy world".  Unfortunately my knowledge of Japanese is too shallow to be able to to tackle Japanese sources, and I was wondering if you could offer insight on this etymology and in particular how this substitution happened, if it indeed happened. Was it some kind of pun?

Nicola is indeed correct to connect ukiyo 浮世 ("floating world") with an earlier ukiyo 憂世 ("world of sorrow").  But how and when did the one evolve into the other?

The Wikipedia article on ukiyo-e, or ukiyo-ye 浮世絵 ("pictures of the floating world"), a term and a genre of painting that are fairly well known in the West, states:

The newer term at times was used to mean "erotic" or "stylish", among other meanings, and came to describe the hedonistic spirit of the time for the lower classes. Asai Ryōi celebrated this spirit in the novel Ukiyo Monogatari ("Tales of the Floating World", c. 1661):[15]

"living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo."

It is curious how the ukiyo that meant "world of worry and grief", a Buddhist concept, is inverted to mean "world of diversion and pleasure".  One can still sense the connection between the two, however, since even (or particularly) when one is immersed in pleasurable pursuits, the evanescence of the moment lends a peculiar poignancy to one's escapist epicureanism.

The term fúshì 浮世 (lit., "floating world") already existed in medieval Chinese with the meaning of "ephemeral, mundane world", so this notion would have been available for Japanese who wanted to make a pun with the ukiyo meaning "world of sorrow / worry".

The notion of a sorrowful world (憂世), seen in texts from the latter part of the Heian period (794-1185) on, shifted to that of a floating world (浮世) in the late 16th century. But, of course, even when one writes 浮世, the older meaning of 憂世 is still accessible through the duosemic pun — because life is short and painful, it is best to float along and enjoy it. The pair of words is often pointed to as representative of the change in worldview from the medieval to the early modern.

The difference between the two ukiyo — the sorrowful world (憂世) and the floating world (浮世) — may be highlighted in a clever pun thought up by Nathan Hopson, who talks about two "edo" periods. The first was the latter half of Heian, which he calls the "edo" (穢土 ["impure earth / world"]) period. The second is the more familiar "Edo" period (1603-1868), when the Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan from the city of Edo 江戸 (lit., "bay-entrance; estuary"), the name of what is now Tokyo.  During that period, Edo became one of the largest cities in the world, with an urban culture centered on the idea of the ukiyo ("floating world") under discussion here.  For a vivid recreation of the life in the pleasure districts of Edo, see the works of Cecilia Segawa Seigle and colleagues on Yoshiwara and related topics here, here, and here (the latter discussing "The institution of the 'Great Interior,' or Ooku, [which] was the residence for the Tokugawa shoguns’ wives, concubines, mothers, daughters, and their female servants for close to three hundred years", a kind of mirror opposite of the loose life in Yoshiwara).

To recapitulate, ukiyo 憂き世 is a mid- to late Heian word related to the rising sense among aristocrats and elite of living in the Latter Days of the Law (mappō 末法), a pessimistic Buddhist notion.

In contrast, the first half of the Edo period was particularly bright and optimistic from the viewpoint of the cities. The era was characterized by population and economic growth, urbanization, an efflorescence of creativity and culture, and lasting peace. In this context, ukiyo 憂き世 was reread as 浮世, transposing the meaning and largely stripping the word of its Buddhist implications.  The concept of the Buddhist ukiyo 憂世 ("lamentable, melancholy world") pretty much disappeared after the end of the 17th century.

Uku 浮く ("float") retains the nuance of levity and high-spirited merriment today, as in fukareru 浮かれる, or ukiuki ウキウキ.

For a more detailed and nuanced understanding of the transformation from ukiyo 憂世 ("world of sorrow") to ukiyo 浮世 ("world of pleasure"), we may examine the materials assembled in Kotobank (see here and here [in French] for an introduction to this marvelous resource).

The explanation here is that the two combinations 浮(き)世 and 憂き世 began as separate Buddhist terms, 浮世 originally read as fusei or fushō and meaning the ever-changing, inconstant world while 憂世 had more implications of the world of sadness and suffering.  Those meanings were in play by around 900 CE according to Japan Knowledge and by the seventeenth century 浮世 came to have connotations of the (ever-changing) pleasure quarters and the “floating world” represented in woodblock prints.

For ukiyo 憂世 ("world of grief and worry") Ross Bender adds:

It most certainly was a Buddhist term signifying the suffering inherent in a transient world. The first appearance as far as I know was in the Ise Monogatari (early Heian) and it is prominent in the classical literature. I first encountered it in the medieval Noh plays — "geni geni me no mae no ukiyo ka na" (roughly "indeed, indeed before our eyes is a transient world, full of sorrow").

It is a long way from such lamentations of existential sorrow in Heian times to the brothels, courtesans, prostitutes, and dancing girls of the Edo period, all very much real world, even if they were floating and ephemeral.

[Thanks to Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Linda Chance, Frank Chance, Miki Morita, Julie Davis, and Molly C. Des Jardin]


The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints, ed. Amy Newland — best English reference book with thoughtful essays

Ukiyo-e daijiten — fantastic work

Designed for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680-1860 — with terrific essays by the leading scholars in the field

And two books by Julie Davis:

Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty (2007)

Partners in Print: Artistic Collaboration and the Ukiyo-e Market (2015)

All of the above deal in some way with deeper investigations into the Edo version of the ukiyo.



  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 20, 2016 @ 12:35 pm

    A partial Western parallel might be the (rather superficial imho) association of traditional Christianity with wholesale condemnation of anything pleasurable, leading to the sort of phrases where e.g. a man is described as "devilishly handsome" or a dessert as "sinfully delicious" without anyone necessarily expecting any seriously negative outcome at the Last Judgment for whoever looks at the one or takes a bite of the other. The notorious/mysterious 18th-century Hellfire Club (whose members reputedly engaged in various sorts of diversions that were in fact condemned by the church authorities of the day, but presumably without agreeing with the church's evaluation) might be a stronger example.

  2. TR said,

    January 20, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

    There's a wonderful novel by Kazuo Ishiguro titled An Artist of the Floating World.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 20, 2016 @ 5:36 pm

    Another parallel from the Abrahamic religions is from Isaiah 22:13: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

  4. Ray said,

    January 22, 2016 @ 6:20 am

    this also seems to connect to something I heard on the news the other day, that today’s economy is less about acquiring things and more about acquiring experiences — our “sharing” economy of uber, airbnb, rented clothes, crowdfunding… (all enabled by today’s seismic shift to online technologies.)

    in this sense, the seemingly opposite meanings of the ‘sorrowful world’ and the ‘floating world’ of edo are actually connected as two sides of the same coin in an ever-changing, uncertain world — a shift from desiring things which are transient to desiring experiences which are transient.

    in both worlds, one still grapples with the buddhist idea of freeing oneself from the bondage of possessions in the pursuit of happiness. but it’s telling that in edo’s ‘floating world’ of experiences, the materiality of woodblock prints (and the material worlds they so faithfully depicted) came to the forefront in their pervasiveness and accessibility.

  5. Doc Rock said,

    January 22, 2016 @ 3:38 pm


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