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BASHÔ (1644-1694)



SAIKAKU (1642-1693)

Ukiyo: The Pleasure Quarters

Robert Oxnam :: With the rise of a merchant class came the expansion of entertainment districts. These pleasure quarters were called ukiyo, the floating world. The floating world also provided a whole new source of subject matter for popular culture and art. Fresh trends in drama, literature, and poetry thrived on the economic and social changes of the time.

Donald Keene :: The pleasure quarters included houses of prostitution, restaurants, theaters, and many other places where people would go. When people were in there, men who went there and went inside there, they forfeited all their particular privileges. An aristocrat or a samurai going in there had no more privileges than a baker or a shoemaker or whatever he happened to be.

The only thing that counted in this world was money. If you had enough money to pay for the pleasures, you would be the person who could enjoy them. And the women — the courtesans, prostitutes, and so on of this quarter — were known by names, Genji names, names taken from the Tale of Genji. So that a merchant could have the illusion that he was spending the evening with a woman who was described in the Tale of Genji.

These women were the subjects of the ukiyo-e, the paintings of the floating world, the pictures of the floating world. These pictures begin as almost advertisements for these women. This is the kind of beautiful woman who lives in this place.

The word "ukiyo" itself in the medieval period had meant the "sad world." That is the world of our existence, this sad world which we should be glad to leave for another world, a permanent world, a world where there is no more of the hardship that we experience in this world. But, by a pun, the same sounds, "ukiyo," were used to mean "floating world." And what "floating world" meant was a world which is full of change and desirable change, and change that's fun. An insistence on now, something that's going on right now, as opposed to the past.

The Japanese traditionally looked back to the past, a golden age when people were wiser than they are now. They lived more graciously than they do now. But in this period the emphasis was on now. Being up to date, knowing what the latest fashions were; knowing the newest slang; going to the theater and hearing about what was most exciting. That was the floating world.

Perhaps the most vivid representation of this spirit is in the paintings of waves. Waves rise, they have crests, they sparkle, they disappear, but another wave appears. It isn't the end of everything once a wave has disappeared.

And so, people of this time were proud of being up to date, which was a rather unusual attitude for the Japanese. They also enjoyed going to the theater and seeing people like themselves. Not only the heros of the past, or people who appeared in the Tale of Genji, but their neighbors, people they knew about. Scandal sheets were circulated, people would sell these broad sheets, and people would know about who killed whom, or what couple committed love suicide together. Any of these activities would be quickly reported. People would buy them and then some dramatist was as likely as not to make a play about it.

Robert Oxnam :: Plays, novels, and poetry all came to reflect the tastes of this urban population. Novels were written to describe the life of the common man. In poetry, the haiku form became extremely popular, as it remains to the present day. Theater became the rage — both Kabuki with live actors and Bunraku with puppets. And famous playwrights wrote for both forms.