From the 1600s to 1868 - the Edo period - Japanese society was hermetically sealed off from the outside world. Industrialisation, the Enlightenment, the French revolution, Imperialism - none had any effect on a social structure that was frozen and unchanging.
But the arts flourished. Most of us are fairly familiar with the woodblock prints of Hiroshige (famous for his views of the Tokaido highway) and Hokusai (whose Mount Fuji views are very well-known). Their bold, strongly-coloured, stylised prints were at the end of the Edo period - but who did they follow, and where did their conventions come from?
This exhibition answers the questions. 'Dawn of the Floating World' presents prints from 1650 to 1765, the period when much of Japanese culture was maturing fully. The 'floating world' was that of entertainment, pleasure and culture in Edo (now Tokyo) - kabuki, courtesans, amateur dramatics, music, poetry, visual arts. Prints by artists such as Moronobu (died 1694) and Masanobu (1686-1764) record this world in all its facets (including the more frankly sexual ones).
So there's a double fascination about this exhibition. First, to see the print itself developing as an artform. The Chinese influence of early drawings takes on masterfully swirling geometry; black and white gradually turns into full colour; and the advent of perspective in 1739 is embraced with a clearly bursting enthusiasm in the street scenes that mill with crowds back to the vanishing point.
Second, and for me more interestingly, there's the record of life itself. These prints are clear, often joyful and humorous illustrations of what the moneyed classes did to entertain themselves. If you'd never seen kabuki, you could reconstruct a whole theatre from these prints, complete with dressing rooms, actors, musicians, audiences and interval snacks. Sacred and profane, refined and vulgar - it's all here, often in the same print, with that characteristically Japanese equanimity.
There are endless intriguing little glimpses into everyday life. A catalogue of kimono patterns from 1666. A 1678 Lonely Planet-style guide book to the red-light districts of Yoshiwara and the kabuki quarter. A 1758 theatre signboard. An anthology of the Top 100 Poems of 1678, with illustrations and commentary. The sensational elephant exhibited in 1728, which in its ukiyo-e incarnation looks more like a giant tapir. Diners cheerily tucking into plates of fish and octopus.
As ever, the commentary with the pictures is substantial but accessible, and you come away with a fresh enjoyment of the techniques and art of the times. For anyone with even a passing interest in the profound culture of this remarkable country, 'Dawn of the Floating World' is a must. Urban Japan of today may have changed out of recognition on the surface, but two hours in the Sackler Wing of the RA may convince you that deep down much is the same.
This story was first published in www.artsworld.com and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Artsworld team.