A reader, having seen one of the hokku of Bashō, asked me exactly what is meant by the term “floating world.” Was Bashō in it? Are we in it?
It all depends on the sense in which we understand the term. Here is the hokku in question (an autumn verse):
Kiso no tochi ukiyo no hito no miyage kana
Kiso ‘s horse-chestnuts floating-world ‘s people ‘s souvenir kana
We can translate as:
Horse-chestnuts from Kiso —
A souvenir for people
Of the floating world.
Kiso was a region in the mountains, isolated from the urban areas of Japan. Chinese horse chestnuts grew there, and they were often considered a kind of symbol of the isolated, hermit life, and were even used as food by hermits. so Bashō says he will bring them back to the people of the “floating world” as a souvenir.
From this alone we can see that Bashō made a distinction between a rural, hermit life (which of course he considered the “poetic” life) and the life of the city, which at that time meant primarily life in the big city of Edo, which later became Tokyo.
So for Bashō, the “floating world” meant, in part, the life of the denizens of the city with their sensuous pleasures, their plays, their restaurants and teahouses. And though it meant in particular the way of life in the Yoshiwara, the “red light” district of the city, Bashō intends it here in a more general sense to mean those who are caught up in the life and entertainments of the “world” — exemplified by life in the city — as opposed to the rural countryside.
We can understand the meaning of the term better if we realize that it is, to some extent, the equivalent of the Chinese Buddhist term “The World of Dust,” which means the world of going after pleasures of the senses, after money, fame, and delights. In fact the term ukiyo (uki = floating, yo = world), if written differently in Japanese but pronounced the same, also means “The World of Sorrow,” which is the world in which we all live, the world of birth and death and suffering. A person on a spiritual path seeks to transcend this floating world, this world of sorrow, by turning away from the pleasures and interests that obsess and absorb the ordinary person.
So what is the “floating world”? Very specifically, it is the Yoshiwara district and its life. More generally, it is the pleasure, money, and fame-seeking life of the city. But even more generally, it is the world of all people not on a spiritual path, of people spending their days and years in trying to have a good time and make money, people who do not give a thought to a simple life and to spiritual development.
For Bashō, the horse chestnuts of Kiso had the underlying significance of a simple, hermit-like life, which again he considered to be the “poetic” life. In contrast to that was the “floating world,” the world of those caught by the illusions of pleasure and money and position, and it was to those people in “the world” that Bashō wished to bring the horse chestnuts of Kiso. It is a distinction between the “worldly” and the “unworldly.”
That this was Bashō’s understanding is confirmed by a variant of the hokku in which the simple term yo (the world) is used instead of uki-yo = (the floating world).
We can see, then, that this is a hokku of contrasts — the rural horse chestnuts on one side, the city dwellers — those in the World of Dust, on the other — and both are linked by Bashō, who unifies the two.
It is the kind of hokku that is understood in Japan but does not “travel well,” meaning that it requires too much cultural explanation to be effective when translated from one language and culture to another.
And by the way, the horse chestnuts in question are not the chestnuts (Castanea sativa) that we roast at Christmas. They are a coarser, bitter kind (Aesculus chinensis) that require considerable preparation to make them edible because they have a high toxin content. They are more like the horse chestnuts known in Britain as “conkers,” and often in America as “Buckeyes,” generally considered inedible.