BYU Asian Studies Journal


Vanessa Hall


BYU Asian Studies, Ukiyo-e


Until the seventeenth century, it was exceedingly rare to find art depicting everyday Japanese life. It was only when artists began painting scenes from the street life in Yoshiwara, the red light district in the capital city of the time, that the popular school of art known as “Ukiyo-e,” a highly fashionable style of Japanese woodblock prints, was formed (J.E.L. 1914, pp. 1–4). Emerging from an era of Chinese philosophy that was against anything Japanese, early examples of Ukiyo-e were rare until Hishikawa Moronobu discovered a way to mass-produce the art through woodblock engraving prints, which ultimately established Ukiyo-e as a “popular school of art” (Ibid., p. 3). The idea behind Ukiyo-e ties back to the idea of iki, a Confucian principle describing an unassuming style without pretentiousness, while still observing pride and spirit and an awareness of the illusory nature of experience. According to Stuart Fleming of the University of Pennsylvania, Edo culture was an expression of the feelings of Ukiyo-e, to make the most out of life here and now. Fleming states how the overall mood of Japan at the time was to reject Buddhist ideas of life as a “sad, fleeting dream” and instead to “replace them with the desire to make the most of life, here and now” (1985, p. 61). Further, Fleming explains,