Ukiyo-e: Dreams And Desires in Tokyo, Centuries Ago

Ukiyo-e depicted a lot more than waves and Mount Fuji. In essence, they were fantasies.

Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1831
Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1831. PHOTO Wikimedia

Many are familiar with Ukiyo-e: its flat colors and bold, two-dimensional shapes that stack together into a natural or urban scenery. Katsushika Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji is not only hailed as a hallmark of Japanese culture, but has long since crossed international boundaries and influenced art overseas. It’s hard to imagine that these beautiful landscapes were only a small part of, and came quite later in, a larger pop culture craze that erupted in Tokyo in the 1600s.

hokusai ukiyo-e
Hokusai Ukiyo-e. From “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” by Katsushika Hokusai. PHOTO Wikimedia

In the Edo Period (1603~1867,) Japan went through a radical societal change. For the first time the Bakufu, what we could call a military government, had more political power than the imperial court. The capital of the country had moved from Kyoto, where the emperor lived, to Edo, from which the leader of the army, the Shogun, ruled. To keep the whole country under control, the Shogun required the majority of his soldiers and servants to live in Edo. The heads of jurisdictions all over the country were also expected to stay in Edo for one year out of two, in a new policy that kept everyone’s loyalty in check. This meant the city of Edo was largely a men’s city.

It was interesting to be in Edo at this time. Separated from their families and far from the imperial court with its old hierarchy, these men for the first time found themselves isolated from the rest of society and stripped of their usual duties. Although class hierarchy still existed in the city, disguising one’s true rank with clever choices in attire was a common—even fashionable—practice. The man came to Edo and turned into an individual.

Ukiyo-e Edo Cityscape
Ukiyo-e Edo Cityscape. A scene in everyday Edo, captured in an Ukiyo-e by Utagawa Hiroshige. PHOTO Wikimedia

Here we saw Japan’s earliest signs of popular consumerism: loss of duty freed men to pursue their most un-thought-of ambitions, opening door after door of forbidden pleasures. They were not “so fond of having plum, cherry, pine, and maple around the house, as gold, silver, rice, and hard cash,” writes Jushua Goldberg, who noted Edo’s growing distaste of the mundane and domestic. Kabuki, a type of theater that revived and parodied traditional folklore, became one of Edo’s common pastimes. The fascination with extravagant storytelling and popular actors and actresses suggests Edo’s status as the Hollywood of 17th-century Japan. And of course, it was here in Edo that Japan saw its first officially licensed red light district.

The art of Ukiyo-e thus began as prints of Kabuki celebrities and of female prostitutes. “Ukiyo” literally translated to “floating world,” a fantastical world full of beautiful people that was above your lived experience. In theme with the new rampant consumerism, Ukiyo-e was art that could be mass-produced by its nature of woodblock printing. Only one carved block was needed to smatter color across its surface and stamp out an unlimited number of prints. A single print scarcely cost more than a bowl for noodles, and some prints were produced in a chronological series so that one was encouraged to collect them all. Interestingly, Goldberg notes that while two-dimensional art such as the Ukiyo-e developed impressively during the Edo period, the city’s architecture changed very little. In such a rapidly growing consumerist economy, art was favored the easier it was to copy and distribute.

In Ukiyo-e you can see many signs of this flourishing city. The celebrities and prostitutes depicted in the prints are often clad in the highest “in” fashion, and we can imagine these having been consumed as a kind of beauty magazine. Edo styles were often rule-breaking and experimental: thwarting designs and colors that were previously class-restricted was quite a trend. “Beni,” a type of red that could only be worn by the elite, was eagerly dyed on the inner fabrics of low-ranking women, letting the forbidden color flash cheekily from under the outer layer. Some new techniques were invented to also offer common townspeople an appearance of “forbidden luxuries” on their clothes without actually breaking strict regulations. Observing Ukiyo-e prints that depict the people living in Edo, Anna M. Meier notes that “no two garments are alike,” suggesting that fashion was not only socially important, but also a marker of personal identity in a society that was still largely collectivistic.

“The Prosperity of Odenmacho” by Utagawa Hiroshige. PHOTO Wikimedia

Beneath this all was, curiously, the townsfolk’s steadfast loyalty and even romanticization of tradition. Rather than dive headfirst into the beginnings of a new city, many found artistic inspiration in the traditional aesthetics of the lost imperial court. The Heian Period, which lasted from the late-8th century to the 12th century, had been a golden age for the Japanese aristocracy, and many poems and stories produced during these years were still massively popular in the Edo period. The geisha (female performers) and yujo (female prostitutes) in Ukiyo-e were sometimes drawn in a way that paralleled famous love stories from this long-lost Heian period.

Another hallmark of Heian, the close observation of nature (primarily flowers and birds), was also mirrored in Ukiyo-e: the flora and fauna patterns found on the clothes of Ukiyo-e portraits required masterful technique on the artist’s part, and on the viewer’s part an extensive understanding of such patterns within Heian history. Thus, while these prints were circulated among every segment of Edo, to be able to “truly” appreciate the value of an Ukiyo-e print, one needed a high level of historical education. Depending on who was looking, these prints could be anything from children’s collectibles, borderline pornography, or high art.

Needless to say, however, that in the city mainly composed of men, Ukiyo-e were drawn by men and meant for male eyes. Bijin-ga, or portraits of women (bijin meaning “beautiful person”), was one of the most proliferated genres of Ukiyo-e. Looking at a bijin-ga, you stepped into the shoes of somebody in very close proximity to the woman or women in question. Captured in the middle of a daily task, such as drying their hair after a bath seen below, you will never find them looking directly at you–the viewer. In many ways, this is an impossible position to be in. To stumble upon a girl within their quarters and to not be shooed away was quite the forbidden pleasure, and the reserved privilege of the Ukiyo-e viewer.

The Hour of the Snake_Utamaro
The Hour of the Snake Utamaro. “The Hour of the Snake” from Kitagawa Utamaro’s “Twelve Hours in the Yoshiwara.” PHOTO Wikimedia

When it became difficult to produce close-up Bijin-ga due to newer regulations, artists continued to carve out their beautiful women from afar, as part of larger cityscapes. Disguise upon disguise was layered; one was not fantasizing, one was merely “looking,” and one was not even looking at women in particular, one was only appreciating the views of the city.

Through clues in Ukiyo-e, we can begin to imagine how during this time, the perspective of someone living in Edo was really a perspective of intention. Not only did they disguise their own status with clothing, but their outward gaze was intentionally male, and overlapped with the gaze of centuries ago that they so romanticized. They saw not what was physically there, but what they wished—to be a self-defined man, embraced within the walls of a pretty woman’s home. Whether this resulted from the confusion of a new social order or the doors of pleasure it opened, it was evident in Edo that realities were often intermixed with dreams. The red light district, Yoshiwara, sat on the outskirts of the city and remained heavily sanctioned, physical walls separating it from the dutiful life elsewhere: one even had a time limit to their visit inside. Romance, on the other side of the wall, was a dream.

Lyon Nishizawa


Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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