Kitagawa Utamaro Woodblock Print
The concept of the “floating world” (ukiyo) originates in medieval Japanese Buddhism to refer to the “sorrowful world” (In Japanese this word sounds the same as the floating world): the cycle of rebirth, life, suffering, life, and rebirth. Life is both transient and illusory, i.e. “the fleeting, floating world.” But the floating world, as it is used today, evolved in the early seventeeth century, in the Tokugawa (or Edo) Period, with the rise of popular culture and art in Japan.
The seventeenth century novelist, Ryōi, in “Tales of the Floating World" (ca. 1661), describes this newer idea of the floating world as follows: “… Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; caring not a white for the pauperism staring us In the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along the river current; this is what we call the floating world…” (Lane, p. 11)
This pleasure-seeking culture, which replaced the ideals of the samurai culture, had its start in the licensed red-light district of Edo (Tokyo) where members of the growing merchant class came to enjoy the theater, brothels, and tea houses that developed there as well as in Kyoto and Osaka, the two other large urban centers.
The redefinition of the term, with its focus on pleasure and hedonism, became the basis for the art we know as “ukiyo-e,” art of the floating world, with its emphasis on beautiful women and handsome men, on courtesans and their rituals, on kabuki actors in their stage roles and behind the scenes, on samurai and sumo wrestlers, and on prostitutes.
References: Wikipedia; Richard Lane., Images from the Floating World, New York: Dorset Press, 1978; Kallie Szczepanski, "What Was Japan's Ukiyo?", ThoughtCo,, 2017.