The Floating World

An analogy to the courtly romances of Medieval Europe can be found in Japanese kabuki theater. Kabuki plays were idealized myths and legends that aggrandized the Japanese nobility while also imparting moral lessons about personal conduct and proper behavior. Just as men of the Europe’s barony class would read stories of courtly romance to learn about chivalry, the Japanese Samurai read poems and watched plays that demonstrated the tenets of bushido. And much like Don Quixote, sitting in his manor reading stories about knights and using these fictions to reconstruct is now obsolete position in society as a knight himself, the Japanese samurai of the Edo period expended their ample leisure time consuming cultural artifacts which confirmed their position and status in feudal Japan in the absence of any operative role.

The samurai class emerged from the Sengoku period of Japanese history when, very similar to Europe’s Dark Age, a long, incessant string of civil wars were fought over matters of succession. The warrior classes played a central role in the fate of Japan during this time. The samurai won power and wealth from fighting in battles and collecting spoils. When the Sengoku period came to an end and Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate, there were no longer wars for the samurai to fight. Unlike the European nobility, who held title over the land and could sustain themselves the surplus produced by an agrarian peasantry, Japanese nobility were forbidden from working the land or having any hand in the production of wealth. They received a very modest stipend from the shogun and were expected to reside in the city maintaining the bushido code of frugality, loyalty, martial prowess and honor. Samurai who had connections in Edo took jobs as bureaucrats in the shogunate government and remained rich men. The rest were reduced to lives of poverty and desperation. Some became Ronin, itinerant warriors seeking the support of a daimyo. Some became gangsters and thieves. Most, however, frittered away their lives in the brothels and playhouses of Yoshiwara, Edo’s pleasure district. An entire culture of purposelessness and resignation arose around the samurai in Edo. It was given a name: ukiyo, the floating world. To live in the floating world meant living only for the moment, taking solace in fleeting pleasures and allowing one’s self to drift from one day to the next. It was a life without consequence, trivial to the extreme, but also a life of relative ease. With no future, the samurai submersed themselves in stories from the past, attaching themselves to a tradition of heroism but abstaining completely from action and duty.

The samurai languished in the floating world for more than three centuries. In 1868, the Meiji restoration took place, conferring complete power into the hands of the emperor and essentially leading to the capitulation of the shogunate. In 1877 the Meiji restoration official disbanded the samurai and dissolved their privileged status, thus allowing them to enter the ranks of productive society as government officials and businessmen.

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