The concept of the “floating world” originated from a Buddhist term, ukiyo, used to describe the suffering caused by desire.
During Japan’s Edo period (1615–1868), the term took on a secular meaning, and was used to evoke an imagined universe of stylish extravagance—with overtones of hedonism and transgression.
For some urban residents of the time, the “floating world” was realized in popular Kabuki theaters and red light districts, where short-lived pleasures were sold and savored. Though these venues were accessible only to a fraction of the population, the floating world provided vicarious pleasure to many others in the form of song, story, gossip and pictures.
Seduction: Japan’s Floating World | The John C. Weber Collection features a selection of paintings from this popular realm, by some of the most talented artists of the time. This kind of art was critical to the success of the entertainment districts. Using virtuoso techniques, sensual designs and sophisticated styles, floating-world pictures supported escapist—and often erotic—fantasies about popular venues and their stars. Notably, pictures of the Yoshiwara—Edo’s legendary, government-sanctioned brothel district—ignore the harsh realities of the sex trade in favor of elegant, carefree settings inhabited by alluring beauties.