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The Floating World of Ukiyo-e Prints: Images of a Japanese Counterculture

James W. Ellis

Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong

Ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” were woodblock prints that, among other subjects, depicted the “women of pleasure” and Kabuki actors of Japan’s Edo Period pleasure quarters. The pleasure quarters, or yukaku, were popular gathering places for the chonin, or urban working class. This essay contextualizes ukiyo-e images of courtesans, geishas, and Kabuki actors, and discusses how such countercultural artworks often came into conflict with the ruling Tokugawa shogunate’s dominate social order. The essay also includes a brief discussion of historical relations between eastern ukiyo-e art and differing western traditions. The essay concludes with a comparison of significant, related ukiyo-e and western modernist prints.



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