literally 'pictures of the floating world' was applied to the popular arts of painting, woodblock prints and illustrated books that depicted life in the great urban centres of Japan in the Edo or Tokugawa period (1615 - 1868). In 1661 the Japanese novelist Asai Ryoi (died 1691) defined ukiyo as 'living only for the moment, gazing at the moon, snow, cherry blossoms and autumn leaves, enjoying wine, women and song, and just drifting along the currents of life like a gourd floating down a river'.
Evolved from the older tradition of painting everyday life, ukiyo-e emerged with the new urban cultures of the early Edo period. Woodblock prints and illustrated books were produced to meet the ever-increasing popular demand for ukiyo-e. Entrepreneurial publishers commissioned designs form artists, supervised the carvers and printers, and finally sold the finished prints to the public. Print runs depended on the demand of the market: a print could be issued in the thousands should it prove to be popular or withdrawn from production if it failed to sell. The common people could afford to buy wookblock prints, which were relatively inexpensive. Like present-day posters, the colourful prints were pinned up as decorations or memorabilia; when they were first produced, they were not intended as rare works to keep.