Conclusion: Finding the Floating World Today

The floating world lives on in the digital age. What endures to this day is the legacy of ukiyo-e as an art form that joyously embraces both the lofty existential ideals of so-called high art and the benefits of mass market appeal.  Now more than ever, in this digital age of immediate interconnectedness where information, entertainment, and advertisement continually knit closer together into a single mass of ever-evolving visual information, we continually look back to ukiyo-e for its ability to combine crisp graphic design, market appeal, and stirringly profound content.

Takashi Murakami: Superflat and Ukiyo-e

Takashi Murakami is one of only a few contemporary artists whose work I could identify by sight before starting my art education as a college student. I owned a copy of the Kanye West album Graduation for which he designed the cover art, I had seen his designs on Louis Vuitton bags, and I admired the homage to his style in the anime film Summer Wars. I also visited one of his works on display at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. I don’t think I hold an outsider opinion when I suggest that Murakami is one of the few players in today’s art world whose work connects with a global audience of consumers, only some of whom would consider themselves art lovers.


Image: Murakami, Takashi. Chaos. Giant Robot,

Murakami splashed onto the global art scene in the early 2000s with a signature art style he refers to as superflat, a style characterzied by playful, vibrant graphic designs and planes of bold color (Steinberg). The name ‘superflat’ refers to Murakami’s perception of his own cultural heritage as a Japanese artist; when asked about the name, he explained that “when I was making my debut as an artist, I felt that it was very important that I try to combine the background of my own culture, my people, and the country into the contemporary art world. So that’s how I came up with the term ‘superflat'” (Murakami). Murakami’s work is often playfully self-aware and engages with Japanese art history, blending Murakami’s influences of anime and pop culture with traditional art forms such as yamato-e and ukiyo-e (Drohojowska-Philp).


Image: Murakami, Takashi. Manji Fuji. ArtNet,

Murakami plays with contrast, exploring the energetic relationship between perceived opposites; his work often contrasts flat shapes with dimensional forms, or combines seemingly incompatible historical and contemporary aesthetics (Drohojowska-Philp). By engaging with contrast and visually combining two disparate concepts, art can force opposites to merge, flattening the distance between them. This conceptual flattening forms the core of the superflat ideology.

Nowhere is the contrast between perceived opposites as important to Murakami as in the dichotomy of high and low art in the Western art world (Drohojowska-Philp). Despite the fame and acclaim he has received as a fine artist, Murakami is unapologetic in the commodification of his work, selling designs for profit and harnessing corporate brands to disseminate his creations to a wider market. According to Murakami, embracing both the ethereal and commercial opportunities of art is another part of his heritage, as “Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and, in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of ‘high art'” (Murakami).

Here again we see the legacy of ukiyo-e at work in a contemporary artist, as Murakami’s superflat art seeks to do precisely what ukiyo-e did hundreds of years ago: create images for mass consumption that unite fine art and commercial art into one successful product. Murakami’s work re-interprets the aesthetics of ukiyo-e, repackages the visuals to communicate with a global audience, carrying the influence of the floating world into the present day. Superflat is the child of ukiyo-e, a bold and audacious art form that resists viewers attempts to stratify the work on the spectrum of low or high art. Instead, superflat seeks to flatten out the nebulous web of hierarchies in which art is often hopelessly tangled onto a single plane of existence where art can be both high and low, worthy to both hang in museums and be sold at the gift shop.

Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. “Superflat.” ArtNet, 2001,

Steinberg, Marc. “Emerging from Flatness: Murakami Takashi and Superflat Aesthetics.” McGill University, 2002.

Art on Flesh: Ukiyo-e in Tattoos

The history of Japanese tattoo art stretches back thousands of years, and the evolution of the tattoo, known in Japan as irezumi, as a mode of artistic expression within Japan is profoundly linked to ukiyo-e, both historically and in the context of the modern tattoo industry.

Archeological evidence suggests that tattoos have been present in Japanese society since the Jomon period in roughly 5000 BC, usually as a form of body decoration for men. However, by the Kofun era (300–600 AD), Japanese society began tattooing criminals to mark them for their transgressions, thus associating tattoos with criminality and taboo practices (Kearns). Cultural perception of tattoos cycled from positive to negative the throughout the classical era, as tattoos continued as a form of criminal branding but were also used to portray heroic acts, profess romantic love, or illustrate famous narratives; this fluctuation of public opinion regarding tattoos continued for hundreds of year leading up to the Edo period, when the practice of tattooing was once again generally publicly acceptable (Kitamura & Kitamura 15).

The advent of more precise and efficient woodblock printing in the Edo period not only spurred the growth of ukiyo-e, but also opened up the market for a new style of tattoo which combined the artistry of ukiyo-e with irezumi, the historical practice of tattooing famous for its use of nara ink (Kitamura & Kitamura 12). During this time, ukiyo-e prints illustrating popular novels often featured heroic figures covered in body tattoos, and the enormous popularity of these figures boosted public interest in tattoos as both a luxury art item and a form of self-expression (Kitamura & Kitamura 13).


Image: Kimbei, Kusakabe. My Modern Met.

Responding to the boost in demand for tattoos generated by their inspiring illustrations, some ukiyo-e craftsman became tattoo artists as well, bringing many of the same tools and techniques from printmaking to body art (Kitamura & Kitamura 16). In this way, the artistic disciplines of ukiyo-e and irezumi were intermingled throughout the Edo period, as ukiyo-e artists and craftsmen produced celebrating tattoos as well as drafting or inking tattoos themselves.


Image: Yoshitoshi. Painful: the Appearance of a Prostitute of the Kansei Era. Ronin Gallery,

Unfortunately, the onset of the Meiji Restoration brought this period of open artistic experimentation to an end and forced the tattoo industry underground, as tattoos were deemed barbaric by the government and outlawed throughout Japan (Kearns). In the century following the Meiji, tattoos once again became a mark of criminality and the traditional practice of irezumi was kept alive within the yakuza for decades, though the extent to which gang-related tattoos existed throughout the twentieth century and today remains hotly contested (DeHart). Though tattoos have been technically legal within Japan since the end of World War II, their association with the yakuza persists and individuals with visible tattoos are often banned from establishments such as hot springs and bath houses (Kearns).

Ukiyo-e elevated the aesthetics of irezumi to that of a true art form, enriching body art both in Japan and throughout the world as Japanese tattoo artists, barred from tattooing their own people, sold their services to foreigners and thus spread the visual traditions of ukiyo-e around the globe (DeHart). Here again, the Western distinction between high and low art is challenged by both ukiyo-e and irezumi, as the artistic traditions of woodblock printing blended with the commerce of the tattoo industry to produce beautiful works of body art. Though stigma continues to surround tattoos within Japan, the rich history of irezumi endures in the form of its influence on Western tattoo industries, where the legacy of ukiyo-e once again serves to unite the aesthetic triumphs of traditional woodblock printing with the commercial endeavors of a modern consumer-driven market.

Works Cited

DeHart, Jonathan. “Forbidden Ink: Japan’s Contentious Tattoo Heritage.” The Diplomat. 2016.  (

Kearns, Angel. “Inked and Exiled: A History of Tattooing in Japan.” Bodylore,

Kitamura, Takahiro and Katie Kitamura. Tattoos of the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Motifs in the Japanese Tattoo. Kit Press, 2003.

Beyond Edo: Ukiyo-e in the late Eighteenth and Twentieth Century

The year 1868 marked the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in Japan, a period of rapid political and technological change triggered by the opening up of Japanese borders to international diplomacy and trade following the hundreds of years of isolation of the Edo Period. During this incredibly complex and controversial time, the Japanese government took strides to “catch up” to the Western colonial empires whose reach had extended fully across the globe (Yosuke). The Meiji government sought the advancement of Japan as a global power by embracing Western technology and, to a certain extent, culture. To that end, the Japanese state, which had for centuries promoted and glorified the traditions of Japan, now campaigned to suppress or eradicate any traditional cultural practices that did not fully align with the Westernizing “reforms” of the Meiji government.

At the start of the Meiji Era in 1868, Edo was renamed Tokyo, a symbolic shift marking the end of the richest period in ukiyo-e, an art form deeply and incontrovertibly linked to Edo itself. The beginning of the Meiji also coincided roughly with the deaths of ukiyo-e masters such as Hiroshige and Hokusai, and the closure of their studios combined with the sudden changes refactoring nearly every aspect of Japanese life decentralized the world of ukiyo-e, whose traditions and achievements gradually grew faded and antiquated in the eyes of the public (Yosuke). During the turbulent years of the Meiji reforms, artists reacted to the thunderous pace of cultural change in many different ways, exploring new subject matter and experimenting with new Western influences.

One artist whose work beautifully captures the state of ukiyo-e in the early twentieth century is Goyō Hashiguchi (1880–1921). Hashigushi combined the traditional techniques of woodblock printing with a Western-influenced art education, applying Western techniques of rendering the human form to the traditional ukiyo-e subject matter of beautiful women at leisure (Harris 84).


Goyo, Hashigushi. Kamisuki (Combing the hair).,

Artist Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915) ventured even further into experimentations with Western art styles, developing a new form of ukiyo-e known as kosenga which employed the Western techniques of linear perspective and chiaroscuro in woodblock printing (Baekeland). Through his work, Kiyochika strived to reinvigorate the fading ukiyo-e community by weaving aspects of Western drawing into the Japanese art tradition, earning him the title of “The Last Ukiyo-e Artist” (Yosuke). Although Kiyochika’s work was well-received by the art community of his time, he failed to fully reignite public interest in ukiyo-e, as the popularity of ukiyo-e prints was rapidly eclipsed by the technologies of photography and mass printing imported from Europe as part of the Meiji reforms (Baekeland).


Image: Kobayashi, Kiyochika. Night Snow at Honchodori. Shukado,

By the time of the Russo-Japanese War in the early Twentieth century, the Japanese public had turned away from old-fashioned ukiyo-e artwork towards the new, inexpensive media afforded by the explosion of Western influence in the country (Yosuke). Though some devoted artisans remained faithful to the practices of ukiyo-e, guarding a tradition that remains alive in isolation to this day, the popularity of ukiyo-e as a form of mass entertainment went into permanent decline, though not without leaving indelible marks on both the domestic and international art world which endure to this day.

Works Cited

Baekeland, Frederik. “Kiyochika Kobayashi.” Grove Art Online,

Harris, Frederick. Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print. Tuttle Publishing, 2011.

Yosuke, Kato. “Edo and Tokyo as Viewed by Kobayashi Kiyochika, the Last Ukiyo-e Artist.” Discuss,

Elusive Beauties: Women in the Context of Ukiyo-e

Note: This post contains references to and images of erotic art.

As a genre of art, ukiyo-e focused heavily on the expression of desire, and among the most popular subjects in the ukiyo-e canon are the prostitutes and geishas of Edo’s pleasure district.

In many ways, ukiyo-e predicted modern celebrity culture with its focus on and portrayal of the idealized lives of geishas. These women are represented as the embodiment of elegant beauty, a trope of femininity which defines the ubiquitously luscious, evocative imagery of ukiyo-e. It is important to note that, while some ukiyo-e art focuses explicitly on prostitutes, many of the most popular images instead depict geishas, educated courtesans of a separate social class who acted as artists, performers, hostesses, and occasionally sex workers to the wealthy and elite men of Edo and Kyoto (Marks 15). For geishas, it was not so much their sexuality which was bought and sold, but rather their sensuality, a subtle but poignant distinction which embodies the poetic sensibilities of the floating world itself. Their lives, as recorded in the prints of ukiyo-e artists, were commodities to be bought and sold to admirers who could not hope to afford their time nor favor (Marks 15).

While geishas comprise the dominant population of women depicted in ukiyo-e, they were by no means the exclusive group of women depicted, as many artists also created images of women of various social classes including serving girls, samurai wives and daughters, women of the merchant and peasant classes, as well as women simply local to the artists’ area (Marks 16). Despite the wide variety of women present in the canon of ukiyo-e, they are rarely depicted as anything other than beautiful, and the standards of ideal beauty are homogenizing, as the women of ukiyo-e tend to lack distinguishing facial characteristics but instead share a common template of female beauty which varies in detail slightly from artist to artist (Kornegay).

Even so, the sexualization of women in the context of ukiyo-e resists any one immediate explanation, as individual artists varied considerably in their depictions of women, a diversity reflected by the wide range of content genres comprising uikyo-e, only some of which contained erotic content. Furthermore, the exploration of fantasy afforded by the floating world sometimes extended to women as well, as many images explore themes of women’s sexualities and personal desires. Interestingly, some of ukiyo-e’s erotic shunga prints even address female sexuality in the absence of men, exemplified by Hokusai’s iconic The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Hokusai). This work, which offers a daring and provocative image of womanly lust, nonetheless portrays female sexuality through a decidedly male gaze, as most artists considered shunga prints to be for the pleasure and use of male customers (Marks 16).


Image: Hokusai, Katsushika. The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. WikiArt: Visual Art Encyclopedia,

Despite the often monolithic representation of women as objects of male desire and the harsh societal restrictions preventing women from pursuing any kind of formal education in the arts throughout the Edo period, some women still managed to pursue careers in ukiyo-e, with a rare few earning respect as professionals within the field (Gordenker). Two such women, Ema Saiko and Tokuyama Gyokuran, gained recognition as painters and poets in the late Edo period; both women were born to privileged families who taught them art at an early age, allowing them to rise up as artists despite not being permitted entry to a formal ukiyo-e school (Gordenker). While these artists’ ink paintings are celebrated today within the canon of Japanese art history, they existed at the margins of ukiyo-e during their own lifetimes, and neither had the opportunity to participate in or manage a printmaking studio like their male peers (Gordenker).


Image: Saiko, Ema.


Image: Gyokuran, Tokuyama. Distant View from a Riverside Pavilion. MutualArt,

Although this author freely acknowledges the limits of applying a Western feminist perspective to the Japanese cultural dialogue on gender and sexism in the arts, one observation holds true nonetheless: the women of ukiyo-e, though beautiful, complex, and elusive in their enigmatic presence as players in the floating world, are almost always the objects of art, and are rarely ascribed any agency as artists themselves.

Works Cited

Gordenker, Alice. “Painting Women of Japan.” The Japan Times,

Kornegay, Lori. “The Representation of Women in Edo Period Nikuhitsu Ukiyo-e Paintings.” Tokyo Art Beat, June 2007.

Marks, Andreas. Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers, and Masterworks 1680–1900. Tuttle Publishing, 2010.

Masters of Style

Ukiyo-e reached what many historians regard as a golden period during the mid-1800s as refinements in the style and technique of print-making brought the medium to new artistic heights (Marks 15). During this time period, many masterful artists produced artwork of enduring beauty whose legacy resonates within and beyond the canon of Japanese art to this day. This post will focus on three such masterful artists and the studios in which they worked: Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Hiroshige, and Katsushika Hokusai.

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) was an enormously successful uikyo-e artist known for his glamorous and alluring depictions of women (Jordan). His body of work typified the genre of bijin ōkubi-e or “large-headed pictures of beautiful women,” portraits and scenes of attractive women which typified the pleasure-district tableau (Jordan). While he was by no means the first or the only artist to capitalize on the female form in ukiyo-e, Utamaro was singular for the depth and sensitivity of his work which focused on both the erotic and non-erotic aspects of contemporary womanhood, often utilizing unusual angles to portray women in “almost snapshot-like moments of human action” (Jordan). Utamaro rendered his women in “a sensuous and stylish manner that reflected the aesthetic of iki, an Edo consciousness of beauty that emphasized coquetry, a fresh angle on conventional themes, lightness, suggestion and incompleteness,” crystalizing contemporary ideals of femininity and style, setting an aesthetic standard that influenced countless generations of artists and still resonates in mainstream Japanese culture today (Jordan).


Image: Utamaro, Kitagawa. Beauty in Front of Mirror.,

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) may very well be the single most famous ukiyo-e artist, due largely to the modern international fame of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a print from his Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji series. During his remarkably long and productive lifetime, Hokusai achieved great fame in his home city of Edo, operating a prolific studio that produced art prints, paintings, manga, pamphlets, and illustrated novels (Naitō). Like many masters of ukiyo-e, Hokusai was a teacher as well as a professional artist, training dozens of students over the course of his career and producing manuals and textbooks on the subject of drawing from life (Naitō). The artist himself drew extensively throughout his near-ninety years, and his work encompasses still-life, portraiture, action sequences, and erotica, though he is perhaps most known for his nature scenes. Hokusai’s nature pictures are characterized by his innovative and highly personal style of manipulating composition, perspective, and color to guide the viewer’s eye in a precise graphic path through the picture (Kita & Kobayashi). For example, in his landscapes, Hokusai frequently adjusted the placement, scale, and color of iconic landmarks to suit his personal vision of the scene. In this way, Hokusai deviated freely from reality to control the story of an image, instilling his work with intense narrative and visual power, setting standards in graphic design that endure to this day.

Towards the end of Hokusai’s life, the opening of Japan’s borders created a new market for the works of ukiyo-e masters in the form of Western artists, many of whom became avid collectors of ukiyo-e prints, admiring and absorbing the style to an extent that left an indelible mark in the canon of Western art in the nineteenth century through to the present day (Naitō). To that end, Hokusai is notable for his popularity among Western artists, with Monet, Renoir, van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas, Manet, and Klimt among the known collectors of his work (Naitō).


Image: Hokusai, Katsushika. Fine Wind, Clear Morning.,

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) was born into a family of low-ranking samurai who valued the arts; at a young age, he established himself as an adept member of the Utagawa school, one of the largest and most successful schools of ukiyo-e (Naitō). Despite being nearly forty years his junior, Hiroshige quickly gained recognition as an artistic peer to Hokusai, then the most celebrated ukiyo-e artist alive (Kita & Kobayashi). Like Hokusai, Hiroshige expanded the scope of his work in the floating world beyond the traditional realm of the pleasure districts, focusing instead on capturing powerful scenes from nature. Much like Hokusai, Hiroshige’s work found eager consumers in the Western art world, with Vincent van Gogh painting copies of Hiroshige’s nature paintings (Naitō).

Hiroshige was aware of and perhaps cultivated comparisons between his and Hokusai’s work, even producing an homage to Hokusai’s print series The Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji by releasing his own series of the same title, a series in which Hiroshige re-imagined many of Hokusai’s celebrated landscapes (Kita & Kobayashi). Hiroshige expressed his view of the differences in their approach to visual storytelling in the inscriptions on his set of The Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji. In this inscription, Hiroshige wrote of Hokusai: “Filled with power of his brush, his work focused upon making things interesting. For instance, he manipulated Fuji as he liked. My work differs. I simply reproduce sketches of what I had seen before my eyes” (Kita & Kobayashi). While Hiroshige shied away from Hokusai’s overt manipulation of reality, his approach was nonetheless groundbreaking for its innovations in atmospheric rendering techniques, which blended stylization with accurate representational drawing.


Image: Hiroshige, Utagawa. Shôno: Driving Rain.,


Works Cited

Jordan, Brenda G. “Kitagawa Utamaro.” Oxford Art Online, 2003.

Kita, Sandy, & Takako, Kobayashi “The Bohemian vs. the Bureaucrat: Hokusai and Hiroshige”, 1996,

Marks, Andreas. Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers, and Masterworks 1680–1900. Tuttle Publishing, 2010.

Naitō, Masato. “Katsushika Hokusai”. Oxford Art Online, 2003,

Naitō, Masato. “Andō Hiroshige”. Oxford Art Online, 2003,

Tools of the Trade

Although many artists produced both prints and paintings, ukiyo-e is largely known for its masterful woodblock prints. While woodblock printing had existed previously within Japan for centuries, technological advancements in the eighteenth century led to creation of polychrome printing. Polychrome prints, or nishiki-e, were single sheet prints created using a set of woodblocks, each block carved to correspond to a single color in the image. This process eliminated the need for artists to print in monochrome and then manually paint colors onto a print, thus allowing a new generation of artists to bring the lavish beauty of traditional paintings in spectacular color to the market at large, triggering a gradual style evolution that eventually produced ukiyo-e as it is known today (“Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style”).

In his book Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print, author Frederick Harris explores the traditional process of creating a complete ukiyo-e print. Combining the perspectives of a historian and an artist, Frederick Harris writes on the key artistic innovations of Japanese woodblock printing in terms of the materials and techniques used by the masters to create their most iconic works, drawing much of his research from time spent apprenticing under a modern ukiyo-e master in Kobe (Harris 24).

Ukiyo-e was a commercial endeavor. Despite the enormously high skill required of its practitioners and artisans, ukiyo-e studios were not merely institutions of fine art but also small hubs of industry onto themselves, as the creation of any single ukiyo-e artwork involved four distinct processes: design, carving, printing, and publishing (Harris 24). The famous artists to whom ukiyo-e artworks are attributed usually acted only as designers, drawing the base image and employing professionals underneath them to execute the carving and printing work. Once drawn, the master’s design would be faithfully copied by professional draftsmen or highly advanced students in black ink onto semi-translucent paper, which would then be glued onto wooden blocks for carving.


Image: Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints,

The wood blocks themselves were carefully measured and cut pieces of sakura wood, or cherry wood; sakura served as the industry standard because it is “a moderately hard, fine-textured, straight-grained wood suited to carving designs in high relief” that grew abundantly in the regions surrounding Edo (Harris 25). Once the design and wood were prepared, carvers armed with an almost surgical array of increasingly delicate chisels and knives would perform the painstaking task of carving out all excess wood surrounding the image, so that only the artist’s design remained at surface level (Harris 25). The final result of this process was fully-carved block that would be used to transfer all of the ink of one color onto the final image; to produce a fully-colorized image required several blocks, each demanding hours of intense and highly skilled artisanal labor.


Image: Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints,

Works Cited

Harris, Frederick. Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print. Tuttle Publishing, 2011.

Department of Asian Art. “Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003)

“Process.” Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints,