In relation to Japanese prints, the three most misconstrued terms are the Primitives, the Decadents, and Ukiyoe. The Primitives refers to all print designers who happened to work prior to full-colour printing, first practiced from 1765 and becoming the standard from 1772; the Decadents refers to all print designers working in the nineteenth century, with the two exceptions of Hokusai and Hiroshige; and the third, Ukiyoe, has recently become a more and more common term to denominate all Japanese prints of whatever period and of whatever subject. The use of the words Primitives and Decadents is probably over by now, at least, that is what I hope. Anyway, even the Japanese have begun to recognize Kuniyoshi and Kunisada, maybe not really as designers of merit, but at least as designers of prints who deserve to be taken seriously. Although, in the case of Kuniyoshi, it is hard to say whether he is deservedly appreciated as one of the greatest talents of the nineteenth century, or just as a designer of prints of ghosts and torture scenes, or maybe as a supplier of designs for body tattoos, or for his prints of cats, or for his humour. These, at least, are the most common subjects for recent Japanese publications on Japanese prints, and I guess that publishers just hope that these may appeal to a younger audience. But maybe the most popular subject in present-day Japan may well be erotic prints and bookplates. And, indeed, for many Japanese, ukiyoe was always sort of synonymous with shunga, as became clear from the understanding nods in my conversations with taxi drivers and cooks when I sat at the counter in restaurants.

Although I will not contest the existence of something like a Floating World, the Ukiyo, probably best defined, or re-defined if you like, by Asai Ryōi (d. 1691) in his Ukiyo monogatari (浮世物語, 1666) as follows:

“/…/ living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo,”

the earliest work that can tentatively be associated with Asai’s definition of this ‘floating world,’ ukiyo, is probably the so-called Hikone screen, an anonymous picture of a man talking to a courtesan and a party with three musicians making music, and two people playing sugoroku, dating to c.1624-44. Also Iwasa Matabei (岩佐又兵衛 1578-1650) is often mentioned as the founder of something like an ukiyoe tradition, even though we cannot really identify any painting by him that would meet the criteria. But almost by nature, screen paintings would not work to spread some notion or launch some new direction in imagery or handling of a theme.

Anyway, something that seems to be foreboding what this floating world might be, probably has its origin in Kyoto, with illustrated jōruri ballad books dating from as early as 1625, and becoming more common from the 1630s. Even before the official establishment of the Kyoto entertainment centre of the Shimabara, in 1640, there is already a lively tradition of courtesans’ critiques, pretty shamelessly discussing the qualities of various courtesans. From the 1650s, we also find simple kanazōshi novels with illustrations in Kyoto. We shouldn’t probably forget that Kyoto had been built and developed as a city from 794, and that Edo was, for sure, a rapidly growing city, but it would probably only be from about the last decade of the seventeenth century, the Genroku period (1688-1704) to be more precise, that we can see something like the beginnings of a typical Edo popular culture.

The earliest illustrated works published in Edo seem to date from 1657, when the city recovers from the devastating Meireki Fire of I/1657. From the late 1650s, we also find jōruri ballad books and simple kanazōshi novels published in Edo, and in 1660 even two critiques of courtesans, the Mirror of the Yoshiwara (Yoshiwara kagami 吉原かがみ) and the Yoshiwara Pillow (Yoshiwara makura 吉原枕). Indeed, from the 1660s, there is a small group of people publishing such popular works that discuss the qualities of courtesans and of actors of the kabuki theatre, or provide the texts of jōruri ballads and of simple novels, among them Urokogataya, Yamamoto, Yamagataya, and Masuya.

Hishikawa Moronobu: Double-page illustration from Pictures of Beautiful Women (Bijin ezukushi), 1683. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1918 (JIB67a–c)

Looking for something that could be seen as a harbinger of something that might look like that floating world, we would probably have to focus on book illustrations or picture books to begin with, which brings us, indeed, to Hishikawa Moronobu (菱川師宣 1618-1694, act. 1659-94), who illustrates and designs eighteen books in the 1670s, another 53 in the 1680s, and still about nine in the 1690s. Please note that 33 of these 80 publications are works of an erotic nature, enpon, a part of his artistic oeuvre totally ignored (especially in Japan) until recently. This makes him, indeed, the number one illustrator of books, both novels and picture books, ehon, as well as erotic works, in the 1670s, in the 1680s, and, erotic works excepted, in the 1690s. He is soon, from 1680, joined by Yoshida Hanbei (吉田半兵衛 act. 1680-93, in the Kansai) – whom we can identify with seventeen books, all but six being erotic works – and from 1681, by Sugimura Jihei (杉村治兵衛 act. 1681-97) – for whom we can also identify fourteen books, and again, all but two erotic works.

The last designer to join these three early masters is Torii Kiyonobu (鳥居清信 1664-1729, act. 1687-1728), who actually moved from Osaka to Edo with his father in 1687, who had been working there painting the large billboards displayed outside the theatres, focusing on some of the dramatic moments in the play that was currently being staged. We can identify twelve illustrated books by him, four of which are popular novels, three are picture books dating from the 1690s, and five (only, I would almost add) are erotic works, mostly dating from the 1700s.