The word ukiyo-e comes from a combination of “Ukiyo” , which means “floating world,” and “e” , which means picture or image. So, ukiyo-e offer both a description of the world of Edo (present-day Tokyo)—in particular the pleasures, foods, daily life, and culture on offer there—and the heavy bustle of the city, at that stage the largest and most densely populated in the world (with over a million inhabitants by the eighteenth century). These prints present fantastical exaggerations of life and often insert historical and mythical characters into contemporary contexts. Ukiyo conjures up a sense of the cultural pursuits, pastimes, and pleasures that grew up to serve a growing merchant class. Furthermore, ukiyo contains within it the idea of a carefree existence; of living for the moment and relishing the aesthetic aspects of life. This attitude, prevalent in the urbane richness of Edo, is encapsulated in the dominant aesthetic known as “iki” . It was hedonistic and largely indifferent to status or rank, though the city itself was governed elsewhere by strict hierarchy. The “floating world” was also a world of the theater and of music, but, crucially, this was a world accessible though money. This aesthetic, then, and the ways in which it was embedded within daily life and attitudes to nature, is central to the identity of the pictures that imagined ukiyo. Referring to a set of new fashions and voguish practices—urbane and cultured—ukiyo-e thus characterize the ways in which music, among many other themes, figured in Edo life.
Binns, A. (2011). Looking and listening : music and sound as visual trope in Ukiyo-e. In T. Shephard, & A. Leonard (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Music and Visual Culture (120-126). London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203629987