Naissance of Pre-Modern Japanese Urban Bourgeois Culture. The Concept of Ukiyo, the Aesteticism of the "Floating World"

Essay, 2006

16 Pages, Grade: High Distinction

Sandra Miller (Author)



1. The New Aestheticism of the Chōnin Class

2. The Rise of Pleasure Districts in Edo, Kyoto and Osaka

3. Emergence of a New Culture: Ukiyo – The World of Pleasure

4. The Cultural Significance of the Pleasure Districts

5. Escapism from Propriety

6. The Ethic and Economic Power of the Chōnin Class

7. The Dandy in the ‘Floating World’



Unprecedented concentration and tremendous social influence were the two intrinsically linked phenomena that characterized the Edo period (1603-1868). Firstly came the rise of urban centres, in particular Edo, Kyoto and Osaka and secondly, a new social strata that developed within these cities. The two events of an urban concentration and a prosperous bourgeoisie – the chōnin, a combination of artisans and nouveau-riche merchants – were elemental for the expansion of segregated and licensed pleasure quarters offering every form of amusement, but which were then subjected to close governmental supervision.

There were two reasons for control: Firstly, to fight subversion; and secondly, to keep public morals in check. The latter became necessary when, as the standard of living had gradually improved for the general urban population, the demand for leisure activities and entertainment opportunities had increased accordingly. Shōgun (the hereditary military governor military leader equivalent to the rank of general), daimyō (hereditary feudal lords) and samurai or bushi (military nobility) had always spent their money in the city, especially in Kyoto, but now entertainment possibilities extended to the prospering middle-class, who strove to establish a mode of life that would reflect their newly established economic importance; they wanted to enjoy life according to their wealth. Chōnin found opportunity for self-assurance by conspicuous consumption of ephemeral pleasures within the ‘floating world’ – a euphemism for the licensed pleasure quarters – where money reigned supreme and everybody was able to take on a role in accordance to his means.

1. The New Aestheticism of the Chōnin Class

Within this ‘walled world within the world’, the chōnin were protected from the dictates of the samurai class and could live an alternative hedonistic life-style in subversion to the governmental sumptuary laws. Denied any improvement of status within the rigid social system, which was based on stringent Confucian ethics, they looked for proper acknowledgement of their position outside the official value system. They gained significance and power by creating a new aestheticism that centred on sui, iki and tsū as its new concept. Chōnin found inspiration as patrons of kabuki theatre and licensed pleasure quarters, especially Edo’s Yoshiwara, where they cultivated city pleasures into a life-style that transformed the districts into social centres where money and expertise in manners guaranteed equality.

An innovative urban culture evolved in the licensed quarters, a development that was instigated by all like-minded participants of this fugitive entertainment industry, consisting mainly of merchants, artisans, courtesans, literati and kabuki actors, who were all able to mix freely and on an equal level with samurai. This anti-establishment culture appealed to a discerning and sophisticated audience, which came to be known as the culture of the townspeople, or ukiyo, characterized by a unique vivacity, with its own customs and standards of behaviour. The phenomenon of ukiyo – a culture that was made by urban commoners for urban commoners – inspired social and artistic progress. It became a vital element in the latest trends and fashions that quickly transgressed the walls of the districts and gained popularity amongst all citizens. Over the course of the Edo period, and analogous to the demise of the famous pleasure quarters, this culture degenerated, but not before its power had pulled down the stringent social barriers that had existed up to then between daimyō, samurai and chōnin classes.

2. The Rise of Pleasure Districts in Edo, Kyoto and Osaka

After a long and terrible period of internal warfare, the Tokugawa shogunate (the last feudal Japanese military government, 1603 to 1868) had finally secured ongoing peace, at last creating ideal conditions for the development of urban centres. The following two centuries of political stability under feudal order saw the rise to prominence of Edo – the Shogun’s designated capital and a city of warriors –, where men outnumbered women by more than two to one. Confidence in the permanency of government also fostered population growth in existing major cities, in particular Kyoto, the old aristocratic place of residence of the court, and Osaka, the new centre for commercial trade. In all cities, entertainment flourished and money was spent on pleasant diversions from routine daily life.

Every aspect of life for all citizens was regulated and public morality was particularly controlled by authorities. Consequently, supervision had to extend to all amusement venues. In Kyoto, the Shimabara pleasure district was surrounded by an earthen wall and a moat. With a single entrance and a guarded gate on the east side is was “possible to keep under surveillance those entering the quarter – fugitives who might seek refuge there and ronin and other troublemakers” (Cambridge History of Japan 742). R ō nin (the masterless samurai warriors who had emerged from the Japanese civil wars of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) often possessed both education and intelligence, joined the ranks of both artists and writers.

In Osaka, authorities moved brothels to the western edge of the city, where they formed the Shinmachi in 1631. In Edo, after a great fire in 1657, a walled district, the new Yoshiwara, was set up outside the city. The Tokugawa bakufu (government administration) organized control in two ways: firstly, by physical confinement of entertainment venues into segregated quarters, which assisted the effective surveillance of its denizens and customers; and secondly, by issuing licenses that supported the fight against illegal competition from the ubiquitous bathhouses outside the designated areas.

Licensed operators were inclined to report any illegal person or activity in order to keep their monopoly and, furthermore, good standing with the authorities, because, although the Yoshiwara was the only government-approved pleasure quarter in Edo, “it was not the only area of prostitution in the city, nor was it the only licensed quarter in Japan” (Seigle 9). The government prosecuted illegal operators, because their unchecked businesses offered ideal hiding places for rōnin and a fertile ground for political subversion that could threaten the traditional order of the feudal system.

3. Emergence of a New Culture: Ukiyo – The World of Pleasure

During the first half of the seventeenth century, the entertainment quarters in all capital cities were dominated by the upper strata of society, because “the rising merchant class was too busy amassing wealth and knowledge to have time for the leisure or conspicuous consumption of the pleasure quarters” (Yasutaka 16). With changes to the patrons and character of the Yoshiwara came the emergence of a new culture. Traditionally, ukiyo was a Buddhist concept that referred to mankind's ever-changing and therefore unreliable existence as ‘the transitory world of illusion.’ However, in the seventeenth century, the connotation of the word changed and ukiyo came to mean the ever-changing world of pleasure and entertainment pursued by the middle class.

Initially, daimyō and high samurai officials demanded refined entertainment in perpetuation of traditional tastes, such as the Noh theatre, which would reflect the supposedly superior aristocratic culture of the court. This was especially the case in Edo, where the population included a large number of daimyō who, under the system of sankin k ōtai (a policy of moving between residences), were obliged to take up residence at regular intervals in Edo. As their responsibility to maintain both family and retainers led to gradual impoverishment, their influence was replaced by wealthy merchants, who “inherited the quarters in Kyoto and Osaka […] because of the decreasing numbers of bushi in these cities” (Cambridge History of Japan 744).

In the first half of the eighteenth century, Edo emerged as an urban cultural centre, casting aside the influences of the Kyoto-Osaka area and shaping its own special character: “The Yoshiwara shared in this transition and assumed a unique position in Japan during this century”, by creating a distinctive bourgeois culture – ukiyo –“ (Seigle 104). Artists emerged from the Yoshiwara or lived within the quarter. The most pertinent feature of this new culture of the townspeople was that it belonged to no particular class: creative artists and master craftsmen formed an elite class in which all were merged without respect to social origins. The Yoshiwara was not only a place for artistic performances, but also the milieu that featured in popular fiction, the sharebon genre.

Ukiyo encompassed significant new forms of entertainment: the puppet theatre, wood-block prints, popular shamisen music and kabuki theatre, all of which became major artistic expressions, because “peace and prosperity [had] encouraged the refinement of sensibilities among members of the merchant class” (Seigle 130). This disparate culture, born in the pleasure quarters of Osaka and Kyoto in the late seventeenth century, subsequently centred in Edo where it was to dominate throughout the Tokugawa period, eventually causing the gradual breakdown of the strict divisions of the feudal order.

4. The Cultural Significance of the Pleasure Districts

By the Genroku era (ca 1688 to 1704), a new and powerful stratum of society had developed and the audience, now able to afford the pleasures of entertainment, had greatly expanded. During this period, generally considered to be the Golden Age of the Edo period, the pleasure districts became the centre of urban life and “townsmen and samurai alike went to the quarters for an escape from the tensions and obligations of the feudalistic society in which they lived” (Keene 473). Both classes needed to fill the gaping void left by an emotionally unsatisfactory domestic life, and an outlet for their creative energy, out of which a subculture in art and literature emerged – one which was quite distinct from the culture of the ruling class. Samurai scholars and educated townspeople became patrons of the pleasure districts, because “they offered a safe zone [both geographically and socially] for fantasy, frivolity, and luxurious display” (Dalby 66). Sophisticated townsmen became experts in all matters of taste, an attitude of refinement, but moreover, it involved something tangible that one could display.


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Naissance of Pre-Modern Japanese Urban Bourgeois Culture. The Concept of Ukiyo, the Aesteticism of the "Floating World"
James Cook University  (James Cook University)
Feudal Japan from 1600 to 1868
High Distinction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
563 KB
Japanese Cultural History, Edo Period, 1603 - 1868, Floating World, ukiyo, urban centres, burgeois culture, aetheticism, chonin, Tokugawa, shogunate, Yoshiwara
Quote paper
Sandra Miller (Author), 2006, Naissance of Pre-Modern Japanese Urban Bourgeois Culture. The Concept of Ukiyo, the Aesteticism of the "Floating World", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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