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Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints

These young people are shown reading and writing. Literacy was high in the Edo period, and book printing was an important industry.
Kitagawa Utamaro (Japanese, 1753-1806), Hour of the Ram, Young Girls, 1798-99

Theater was a popular amusement in Japan. Here, actors rehearse a scene from a Kabuki play.
Utagawa Kunisada (Japanese, 1786-1865), Rehearsal of a Kabuki Play, 1860

These three women are playing traditional Japanese instruments. The woman on the left plays a shamisen and the one in the center plays a koto.
Torii Kiyonaga (Japanese, 1752-1815), Playing Instruments, 1794

key idea
Pictures of the Floating World

“Enjoy life!” That could have been the motto of Japanese commoners during the Edo period (1603 to 1867). Japan was peaceful and thriving at that time, but the Japanese government isolated the country from the rest of the world and controlled many aspects of people’s lives. People turned for entertainment to the theater, music, and art. Often they spent large sums of money just enjoying themselves. This world of pleasure was known as ukiyo, “the floating world.”

Many forms of Japanese art developed in the Edo period, including a distinctive type of print. Inexpensive, mass-produced pictures (first used to illustrate novels) became available to the common people. Meant to inspire and amuse, these prints became extremely popular. Such pictures were known as ukiyo-e (oo-kee-oh-ay), or “pictures of the floating world.”

In Japan, the blossoming of cherry trees in the spring was (and still is) a reason to celebrate. People spent time outdoors, walking and picnicking under the pink flowers.
Ando Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797-1858), Willow, Cherry Blossoms, Sparrows, and Swallow, early 19th century
May 2007