At the beginning of the 17th century the Tokugawa warrior clan unified Japan and established a strong government. With the peace and stability of Tokugawa rule came economic prosperity, and the arts flourished. Although the samurai ruled Japan, merchants, craftsmen and common people became increasingly affluent. Yet the prevailing social structures strictly limited the opportunities available to the commoners, so they poured their energy into creating a culture of their own. The Kabuki theatre and the licensed entertainment districts became the focal points of popular art and literature.
The way of life in the entertainment districts became known as the ukiyo or 'floating' world, whose fleeting pleasures were to be enjoyed for the moment. The aesthetic of the floating world was iki, meaning wit, style and sophistication. Nothing was sacred under this spirit of deft humour, which interpreted heroic legends, classic literature and even religious subjects for popular entertainment. This aesthetic can be observed in the paintings and woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world).