The Great Wave of Kanagawa from Japanese Artist Hokusai

by WriterArtist

Not so recognized and famed in the land of rising sun Japan is “The Great Wave of Kanagawa”. This Japanese art however finds immense popularity in West.

Perhaps a trip to Japan will be beneficial to the people who want to understand Japanese art. Japanese art is beautiful and the essence lies in details. The art is obvious in theatre, religion and music. One needs to evaluate the art with heart and just not with eyes. Vivid sketches of travelers, mountains, landscapes, cherry blossoms, trees and people brings out the beauty of Japan in ancient era. The Great Wave off Kanagawa is art in woodblock prints, the prominent craftsmanship in Edo times wherein the texture of the carved wood became an integral part of the drawing.

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Image Courtesy Pixabay, Author Prawny

Objects of Paintings and Artwork

Woodblock Prints

The art forms are mostly embraced from the nature. The human forms are also seen in the artwork. In some art pieces the extreme forms are clear while in others they are subtle. The first wooden block prints featured deities and sacred sutras. They were meant to given as free in temples to believers. Later on, the expensive forms of paintings and calligraphy emerged. During Edo period the objects of drawings were lovers, courtesans and beautiful Kabuki actors.

The Great Wave
The Great Wave

Great Wave of Kanagawa

Katsushika Hokusai Canvas Prints - Wall Art
Wieco Art Great Wave of Kanagawa Katsushika Hokusai Giclee Canvas P...

Japanese Traditions

The Culture and History

While modern Japan has skyscrapers, malls and corporates, a part of ancient culture still remains unchanged in the land of ancient temples, Japanese traditions and Zen. The culture and history are the dominant factors in shaping traditional Japanese art. The floating world – concept of “Ukiyo” came from Buddhist teachings. Since the objects of desire are impermanent, one was preached to detach from worldly pleasures and aspirations. However, the original meaning was lost and people thought to indulge and saviour pleasure since they were fleeting. Cherry blossoms in haiku and were celebrated due to the transient nature of spring. They found their place in woodblocks print too.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Art during Edo Period

This seems to be one of the most popular works of Japanese art. Pristine and ancient, we see it all the time in modern posters, T shirts and wall art. The writing is imminent, it is Japanese if one looks at it carefully. At a distance there is a small object compared to the enormous, giant wave. It is Japan's famous mountain volcano Mount Fuji.

What comes to your mind?

What is about to happen?

Does it seem like a normal wave? Well for some, it may look gigantic like tsunami. Although the wave is big it is not the monstrous tidal wall of tsunami. What else do you comprehend? Can you trace out 3 boats, they appear to be engulfed by the great wave. Also, the waves are drawn with the ends as claws or fingers. Probably like a monster from Japan Manga, a comic, a cartoon or an anime.


It looks as if the wave will gobble the boats. By the way, have you wondered the fate of the boat and the state of the people sailing in it. Do you see if they are panicking? On the contrary, they look ready to embrace the wave. They know they will come out without much damage if they hold on tight and keep calm.

How did the Great Wave come into being?

Thirty six views of Mount Fuji


This work was made from a woodblock print. The artist began this artwork when he was 62 years old. Not young but still a sharp witty chap. He continued this work for the next 8 years. The Great Wave is one piece in a series of 36 blocks. The artist captured Mount Fuji during different seasons at different angles and varying times of day as well as distances. The drawing was scratched onto a wooden block. Ink was applied to it and later was pressed onto paper.

The Great Wave by Hokusai

Great Art Explained

Japanese Artist Hokusai

Rule of Tokugawa Shoguns

Katsushika Hokusai made The Great Wave off Kanagawa during the period 1820 to 1831. The art of making such woodblock prints was called the making of Ukiyo-e Prints in Edo period. The earlier blocks were black and white but later colours were added by Hokusai. Hokusai focused on daily lives of Japanese and moved away from the tradition of making beautiful images of courtesans. He was particularly interested in drawing the ocean waves, which brought him breakthrough in his career and popularity. The quintessential scene of fishermen battling the sea off the coast of Mount Fuji brought him a level of recognition even during Edo period.

Updated: 06/11/2023, WriterArtist
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DerdriuMarriner on 08/09/2023

It's interesting that posterity realizes, even as Hokusai contemporaries realized, as their takeaway from the block the Kanagawa wave.

As I mention elsewhere in the comment boxes below, it may be that Hokusai would have preferred viewers concentrating upon Mount Fuji, his announced subject of that block series.

Online sources mention something etymologically interesting about Mount Fuji. They suggest the current spelling of Mount Fuji as 富士山, "Prosperous Mountain" transforms its original spelling and meaning as 不二山, "Peerless Mountain" deemed unlike any other anywhere.

Would it be possible that Hokusai wanted viewers to watch how Mount Fuji was somewhat dwarfed by the Kanagawa wave but still would be there long after the wave dissipated?

DerdriuMarriner on 08/07/2023

The second paragraph under your fourth subheading, What comes to your mind?
What is about to happen?, asks a question that I notice in a new way after going through online sources. It asks "By the way, have you wondered the fate of the boat and the state of the people sailing in it. Do you see if they are panicking? On the contrary, they look ready to embrace the wave. They know they will come out without much damage if they hold on tight and keep calm."

The block title, 神奈川沖浪裏, Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura, literally can be translated as "Under the Wave off Kanagawa." Might that give more of an emphasis on who is below and how they react than the typical description of the block as "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"?

DerdriuMarriner on 08/05/2023

Internet sources avail us of all the blocks in the Hokusai series. They conserve his self-created profile of himself as an 83-year-old. Hokusai displays an apparently peaceful attitude even as his eyes and his head embrace a right-sided turn that perhaps expresses longing for someone, something.

Perhaps the self-portrait implies that perhaps his favorite block is not our favorite one. Hokusai made those blocks for and to Mount Fuji.

Might not Hokusai have preferred that we therefore treasure such views as the second (Fine wind, clear morning) or the third (Thunderstorm beneath the summit)?

DerdriuMarriner on 07/25/2023

Your next-to-last subheading, How did the great wave come into being?, describes the Kanagawa wave as one of 36 blocks relating to Mount Fuji. It explains that the blocks furnish their audience with Mount Fuji at different times and from different angles and distances.

Isn't it a bit sad for the artist that the block scene that posterity associates him with perhaps does not convey the totality of the message that he was conveying? Isn't the totality focused upon an attractive albeit scary volcano even as the extraction of just one block focuses us upon a wave?

DerdriuMarriner on 06/29/2023

The second paragraph to your third subheading What comes to mind? What is about to happen?, considers that "It looks as if the wave will gobble the boats. By the way, have you wondered the fate of the boat and the state of the people sailing in it. Do you see if they are panicking? On the contrary, they look ready to embrace the wave. They know they will come out without much damage if they hold on tight and keep calm."

Your interpretation of the passengers as embracing the wave makes me think of some of the water scenes involving the last avatar and the water avatar in M Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender.

This great Kanagawa wave likewise makes me think of water scenes in The Last Airbender.

I was disappointed in some negative responses to M Night Shyamalan and his creatively genius films. I wish that he'd be permitted to make the sequel that he had in mind.

Would you happen to have seen The Last Airbender?

DerdriuMarriner on 06/16/2023

The first paragraph in your first subheading, Objects of Paintings and Artwork: Woodblock Prints, describes the Edo period as artistically characterized by "objects of drawings [that] were lovers, courtesans and beautiful Kabuki actors."

In a way, those subjects make me think of that time period as artistically promotional, like the 20th and 21st centuries may be said to advance film personalities.

What might be the point of switching to nature themes, a bit more terrifying than consoling unless one notes the calm human protagonists?

With Mount Fuji in the background, would a motivation be not to forget the dangers that come from the waters when one is worried about those that come volcanically from the land?

DerdriuMarriner on 06/14/2023

I've always found Arthur Rackham's illustrations to have a clarity of color and composition that is so unique that his illustrations are immediately recognizable to me as his. Your notation of his interest in Japanese woodblock prints is interesting and may explain the impact of his illustrations; nothing seems extraneous.

DerdriuMarriner on 06/13/2023

The computer crashing kept me from adding another impression to my comment below yesterday.

Isn't it interesting that blue, brown, green and white are special colors and that they alone dominate The Great Wave of Kanagawa?

DerdriuMarriner on 06/12/2023

The film The Perfect Storm, with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, makes me think of The Great Wave of Kanagawa and vice versa.

It might be interesting to look into symbolism of colors, shapes and title.

For example, the blue and the white seem cold (and relentless).

The foam seems ominous, with what you mention as claw-like ends.

The wave seems so high, like the unmerciful wave in The Perfect Storm.

But, unlike the latter, the Hokusai painting shows what suggests to me the Cross or the beautiful statue of Cristo Redentor ("Christ the Redeemer") atop Corcovado mountain, Tijuca National Park, Rio de Janeiro, Distrito Federal, Brasil.

Tolovaj on 06/12/2023

Hokusai's art made a huge impact on Western art in the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Arthur Rackham, probably the most influential illustrator of the 20th century was heavily influenced by Japanese woodblocks. This art is seemingly simply yet with an astonishing effect.

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