Ukiyo is usually translated as "floating world". While they can depict anything, they traditionally feature motifs of landscapes, tales from history, the theatre, and pleasure quarters. Since woodcuts can be mass-produced, they are affordable items. They are mainly meant for townsmen, who are generally not wealthy enough to afford an original painting.

Ukiyo-e prints were made using the following procedure:
* The artist produced a master drawing in ink
* An assistant, called a hikkō, would then create a tracing (hanshita) of the master
* Craftsmen glued the hanshita face-down to a block of wood and cut away the areas where the paper was white. This left the drawing, in reverse, as a relief print on the block, but destroyed the hanshita.
* This block was inked and printed, making near-exact copies of the original drawing.
* A first test copy, called a kyōgo-zuri, would be given to the artist for a final check.
* The prints were in turn glued, face-down, to blocks and those areas of the design which were to be printed in a particular color were left in relief. Each of these blocks printed at least one color in the final design.
* The resulting set of woodblocks were inked in different colors and sequentially impressed onto paper. The final print bore the impressions of each of the blocks, some printed more than once to obtain just the right depth of color.

Historic Woodcuts

The original subject of ukiyo-e was city life, in particular activities and scenes from the entertainment district. Beautiful courtesans, bulky sumo wrestlers and popular actors would be portrayed while engaged in appealing activities. Later on landscapes also became popular. Political subjects, and individuals above the lowest strata of society (courtesans, wrestlers and actors) were not sanctioned in these prints and very rarely appeared. Sex was not a sanctioned subject either, but continually appeared in ukiyo-e prints. Artists and publishers were sometimes punished for creating these sexually explicit scenes.

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