I'm not very familiar with this specific term, but do know intermediate Japanese. "Floating world" seems to be a direct translation of the two characters: 浮 for "floating" and 世 for "world". However, the main definition for this word online is "fleeting life" or "this transient world", similar but more natural in English. Interestingly enough, the fourth entry in the definition is "(the world of the) red light districts​". This final definition certainly matches the Wikipedia article and is hinted at with "fleeting" and "transient", suggesting to make the most of pleasure with your limited life.

What is the main definition, especially with respect to Ukiyo-e, 浮世絵?

1 Answer 1


うきよ was originally 憂き世 ("this melancholic/miserable world") but reanalyzed as 浮き世 ("this transient/fleeting world") around the Edo period. It was associated with sadness and ethical corruption at first, but later it came to mean "secular part of our world" or simply "this modern world." It also gained associations with mass culture and eroticism. (I did not know 浮き世 could mean "red-light district" in isolation. I believe this usage is exceptional.)

In present Japan, 浮き世 is almost an obsolete word, and we seldom see it outside a few words and idioms including 浮世絵 and 浮き世離れ. Most people understand it has something to do with the "pop culture" of the Edo period, though. The sex industry and pornography was certainly a part of the 浮世 culture, but it's not limited to that.

  • Thanks, @naruto. You don't happen to have any references handy for the term's origin? I'm trying to update the Wikipedia page.
    – MXMLLN
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 15:08
  • 2
    @MXMLLN My source is this and some other random articles on the net. Perhaps it's not authoritative enough as a source of an Wikipedia article...
    – naruto
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 2:41

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