After a century of civil wars, Tokugawa Ieyasu had unified Japan in 1615 and established his military government in the fishing village of Edo (present day Tokyo), which became his capital. The imperial court granted Ieyasu the title Shogun (military ruler), and he ruled Japan in the name of the figure-head Emperor, who resided in Kyoto. During the Edo period, Japan experienced more than 250 years of peace and prosperity. Edo became the political and financial capital and the centre of ukiyo-e production. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century the city had a population close to one million.

Commercial prosperity led to the growth of a new urban culture and the emergence of a wealthy and prosperous merchant class. Merchants had the lowest status in Tokugawa society, the social classes of which were ranked in the following order of importance: samurai-warrior, farmer, artisan, merchant. The merchants achieved financial success by catering to the needs of the new urban society and by acting as creditors to the feudal lords, the samurai, and even the shogunate, military government, itself.

The rich merchants of the Edo period became the patrons of the artists, actors and courtesans who belonged to the newly emerged popular 'chonin-culture' of Edo and Osaka. Merchants and artisans were known collectively as chonin, literally 'townspeople'. Originally, ukiyo (based on the Buddhist concept of 'here and now') was a term used to convey the idea of the transient nature of existence. In the Edo period, however, the term was given a slightly less reverent construction, being used to refer to the attitude - prevalent at the time - of responding to the transitory nature of existence by living for the moment. The term 'floating world' referred in particular to life in the entertainment districts that housed the pleasure quarters and the popular kabuki theatre, but the word also carried connotations of being modern, affluent, chic and fashionable. Although they were officially social outcasts, kabuki actors and courtesans, admired for their beauty and splendid clothes, were the trend setters of society.