Nobumasa Kiyonaga & Ernst Wagner

Katsushika Hokusai, 1831-1833, colored woodcut print, 25 x 37cm, Tokyo National Museum. © public domain

West meets East meets West


The colored woodcut print –“Ukiyo-e”– “Nami-ura” (The Backside of the Wave) (1831-1833) is known as “The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura)” in the West. It is a part of the series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku Sanjū Rokkei)” by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) from the Edo period (1603-1868) and is today regarded as an icon of Japanese art all over the world. The high international esteem for this work and overall Hokusai's art, however, does not necessarily correspond to the assessment by the Japanese, although its status in Japan has been transforming interestingly.


Two perspectives on “The Great Wave off Kanagawa"

Nobumasa Kiyonaga of the University of East Asia in Shimonoseki, Japan, and Ernst Wagner of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany, have written the following interpretations of Hukusai's wood print in a parallel writing process. Both authors knew nothing about each other’s texts, so the texts were created independently from each other.

  • Nobumasa Kiyonaga
    Nobumasa Kiyonaga

    Katsushika Hokusai, Nami-ura


    Many Japanese feel astounded when they know that Hokusai is considered as the most famous Japanese artist in the Western countries. The art-historical assessment in Japan also turns out differently than one would probably expect from a Western perspective. For example, it was only in 1997 that one of his works was admitted as Japan’s cultural heritage for the first time by the Japanese Ministry of Culture.


    In order to understand this understatement, one needs to understand the socio-historical context of the time of the period when Hokusai produced this work: In the Hokusai's lifetime, an ukiyo-e master was considered as a mere craftsman. This, for example, represents a strong contrast to the Kano school artists, whose focus was primarily on Chinese painting. Many of the Kano school artists worked as the shogunate’s official painters, which enabled them to be part of the warrior class. In feudal society there was an unbridgeable clear class difference between those artists and ukiyo-e masters. Moreover, ukiyo-e was considered vulgar, as it was a medium for common people and some were even pornographic. Today “ukiyo-e” specially represents Japanese woodblock prints of the later Edo period. But actually the term ukiyo originally has a Buddhism-originated, rather pessimistic meaning, namely: “transitory world”, which contrasts to the word jōdo as “pure land” or “paradise”. “Ukiyo-e” in this context would mean “images from this world”. However, it was precisely in the Edo period mentioned about the attempt of reinterpretation, especially among townspeople, to perceive, affirm and even enjoy this temporary, worldly world as something positive. Accordingly, despite its originally negative meaning of the word, motifs that came to mean everyday, life-affirming, bourgeois life were often chosen for “ukiyo-e”.


    In the Hokusai's lifetime his artistry1 in this sense certainly met with positive response and interest from the townspeople in Edo (today Tokyo). But it was French art critics and modern artists at the end of the 19th century who gave Hokusai “world-class” status. With the style of the so-called Japonisme they hoped to get impulses or artistic suggestions from the color woodcuts or lacquer works to overcome the hopelessly frozen academic European art from their viewpoint; bold, asymmetrical compositions, spontaneous drawing, strong colors, overcoming the central perspective. It seems clear that the view of these Europeans on Japanese works of art was from the beginning selective. And obviously Hokusai was an ideal projection here.


    In Hokusai's extensive oeuvre the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” is regarded as his main work. Among all of Hokusai’s works, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” particularly has attached special attention in the West until the present day. Already in 1897 Camille Claudel (1864-1943) created her work “La Vague”, which was inspired by “The Great Wave” and in 1888 Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) pointed out the special nature of this work in a letter to his brother. Eventually “The Great Wave” established itself as an “global icon” as one acknowledged today2. According to the English art historian Christine M. E. Guth, it was decisive for the enormous spread of the picture that in the West, “The Great Wave” was chosen as the title to differ from the original “The Backside of the Wave”. In this way, the image has been separated from the original context3.


    The fascination, which this work still holds globally today, certainly lies all in the geometrical or typically Japanese asymmetrical composition and the dynamic representation of the big waves. Thereby the horizon is set unusually low, which additionally serves to increase the effects. The position is actually very unnatural and almost impossible. Here it is important to point out that this perspective representation was a result of Hokusai's attempt to appropriate or interpret the European central perspective. It was in the early 18th century that the Japanese began to deal intensively with this Western style of painting. By directly connecting the foreground and the distant view without a middle ground, they found a particularly effective means of dramatic representation, which in reality deviated from the actual Western painting principles. The Japanese art historian Shigemi Inaga calls this typical Japanese expression “chūkei-datsuraku (falling out of the middle ground)”4. Many ukiyo-e masters liked to make use of this manner. Also in Hokusai's “The Great Wave” it seems to have succeeded impressively. As already expressed in the original title “Nami-ura” (the backside of the wave), the picture draws the viewer's gaze deep into the inner side of the devouring movement of the waves. Thereby a literally sublime feeling is awakened in the observer. In front of this mighty natural phenomenon, the people in the picture look powerless, as if they were merely driven by the waves. The holy Mount Fuji silently watches all this sight from far away.


    Mount Fuji, a 3776 meter high volcano, is not only the highest mountain in the country, but has been worshipped as a religious object in ancient Japan. On the one hand, Fuji with its rich water reservoir provided fertility, but on the other hand its eruptions caused great damages to the population. Accordingly, it was always regarded with a certain reverence and in the 9th century the first shrine for the fire god “Asama” was built on it. The mountain then also became a holy place for Buddhists. The Mount Fuji worship became especially popular during the Edo period. The most eloquent example is Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”. Otherwise Mount Fuji was chosen as subject of the painting again and again since the 11th century at the earliest. Later, at the peak of nationalism in Japan, especially during the second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War (1937-1945), the mountain was identified with the nation “Japan” per se and eventually became an authentic “national symbol”. After World War II it was then seen as a symbol of the new, revived Japan. Based on these historical backgrounds it seems obvious that many Japanese perceive something particularly familiar in the depiction of Fuji in the work “Nami-Ura”. In this sense, it is quite significant that Mount Fuji was recognized by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage in 2013, as a “sacred place and source of artistic inspiration”.


    Today, the image “The Great Wave” is often used for merchandising products of museums,  such as coffee mugs, plates, notebooks, ties, T-shirts, wristwatches or umbrellas, and is extremely successful. The Japanese government finally jumped on this trend at the beginning of the 21st century when it developed a state-sponsored marketing strategy based on “Cool Japan”, a neologism created by the American journalist Douglas McGray, in which the Japanese subculture such as manga or anime would play a major role. The motif was also used for the “Cool Japan” project. Guth sees this as the final recognition of Hokusai on the Japanese side5.


    Inaga writes that Hokusai was an artist who had gained his unique historical significance in the international context of Japonisme "as a sociological phenomenon“6. The shift in Hokusai's evaluation for over a century makes his creative approach a complex construct of the artistic, cultural and social development of the Edo period. Inaga notes that “many things that today are considered the essence of Japanese aesthetics were actually refined in dealing with imported culture. […] Cultural characteristics are not revealed in isolation, which shields itself from foreign influences, but rather through curiosity about the outside world“7. Especially Hokusai's art is a prime example of this statement.


    Download of an extended version of this text, including results from a research project at Japanese schools. In German




    1 The concept of art with the European sense did not exist in Japan at that time yet. For this reason the author avoids the term “art“ at this point. It was only after the opening of Japan to the Western countries in the 1850s  that the term was newly introduced from Europe as a translation word.

    2 Christine M. E. Guth (2017): 21 Seiki no Yōroppa · Amerika bunka no naka no “Ōnami” (eng: The Great Wave in Twenty-first Century Euro-American Culture), in: exh.cat. Hokusai and Japonisme, Tōkyō: Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan (The National Museum of Western Art) und Yomiuri shinbun Tōkyō honsha, p. 296.

    3 Guth (2017): Ibid.

    4 Shigemi Inaga (1999): Kaiga no tōhō ­– Orientarizumu kara Japonisumu e (eng: The Orient of the Painting: Orientalism to Japonisme, Nagoya: The University of Nagoya Press, p. 90ff.

    5 Guth (2017): pp. 298-299.

    6 Inaga (1999): p. 174.

    7 Shigemi Inaga (2018): Nihon-bijutsu-shi no kindai to sono gaibu (eng: The modernity of Japanese art and its outside) Tōkyō: Hōsōdaigaku kyōiku shikōkai, p. 33.



    published June 2020

    Ernst Wagner
    Ernst Wagner

    Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kangawa


    A raging sea, mighty waves, spray falling like snow from their crests. The waves form huge claws that hover precariously over the fishermen in their fragile boats. Adapting to the shape of the mighty waves, the boats’ bows thrust their way ahead towards the left. The energy of the boats speeding forward is compositionally absorbed by the propulsive force of the water pushing to the right. Hypothetically, the viewer is positioned in the water and is in just as much in danger as the oarsmen.


    In the centre of the wave trough’s mighty movement, we see the static Mount Fuji diminutive in the distance. Although one could almost overlook it due to its size and similar colour to the water it is the central subject of this woodcut, one in a series of “36 views of Fuji”, completed by Hokusai.  Fuji’s peak lies in the golden section and serves as a stabilising element. The mountain, holy in Shintoism[1], appears like a vision, promising (unattainable) security. A pale white cloud above it takes on the shape of the wave adding to the threatening atmosphere. It is somewhat irritating how Mount Fuji and the waves approach each other through colour, form and lines. Even the drops of water coming out of the spray look like snow falling on Fuji’s peak. The small rowers crouching in their boats do not even see the mountain. In comparison with the other pictures in the series, this sheet displays the most dramatic representation in juxtaposition to the calm steadfastness of Fuji. The other 35 sheets mostly depict Fuji in idyllic everyday scenes or in quiet, monumental sublimity. (The great differences in style show that the series was published over a span of several years.)


    The composition is like a snapshot of a scene at its dramatic climax. We, the observers perceive it from the distance and, at the same time, we are right in the middle of it. The giant wave is about to crash over the boat on the left, while the other two boats, swift as arrows, are heading right into it as well. According to historical accounts, they are fishing boats that are on their way back with their catch to the mainland, to Kanagawa, a place in the bay of Edo, today's Tokyo. But none of this is visible in the print. Instead, Hokusai illustrates a powerful and dangerous nature in which men must integrate themselves in order to survive. The picture displays the fishermen nestled within the frame of the wave. In this way, Hokusai creates a timeless and emotionally moving metaphor for man at the mercy of nature. He thus takes a specific artistic position that makes him interesting in comparison with European paintings by e.g. Caspar David Friedrich or William Turner who address a similar experience.


    The title and Hokusai’s name appear in the upper left corner of the print in Japanese script. The concept of combining image and script is typical for Far Eastern traditions. We can find more features that can be considered as typical for Japanese woodcuts: flatness, reduction of colours, graphic patterns (e.g. the light and dark stripes in the water) and black lines outlining or defining the objects. Hokusai uses these means with expressive exaggerations, which often take on caricature-like features, for example in the representation of the spray or the frightened fishermen in their boats.


    However, since Hokusai also uses Western pictorial principles, especially the conception of space and the idea of a dramatic climax, he created his own visual language, based on his reception of Western painting. This is significantly demonstrated by his treatment of spatial depth. Looking through the waves at the central motif – in this case Mount Fuji – from an observer's point of view is committed to the Western concept of perspective formulated in the Renaissance: the picture as a window to the world, which appears in perspective. In Hokusai's work, this European concept of space merges with the traditional Japanese art of colour woodblock prints, which was characterized by emphasized two-dimensionality, contrasting empty spaces, ‘abstract’ pictorial structures, and dynamic linearity. Hokusai's mediation between two culturally different pictorial conceptions ultimately led to his being more popular in the West today than in Japan itself.


    The opening of Japan after 1853, forced by US gunboat politics – and supported by European governments – triggered trade between Japan and the world. At first, some Japanese woodblock prints were used as packaging material, which may seem surprising to lovers of this art form today. Fortunately, they were discovered and enthusiastically received by artists in France. Among those were Hokusai’s prints and his popularity grew rapidly throughout Europe and elsewhere. The collecting frenzy of Japanese art (Japonism), which was also triggered by this, influenced Post-Impressionism, Art Deco and Art Nouveau and, in particular, architecture and design such as was taught at Bauhaus. Just as Western visual language came to Japan, Asian visual concepts now influenced art in Europe.



    Hokusai, trained in painting and woodblock printmaking, is considered a master of the multi-coloured ukiyo-e woodblock prints. From the early black and white prints, an extremely refined multi-colour printing process with up to fifteen woodblocks was developed during his lifetime. For the production of the plates and complicated printing process there were highly specialized workshops, for which – in our case – Hokusai provided the templates. Compared to other prints, however, relatively few plates were needed for the 'Great Wave': three for the different shades of blue, one each for the colour of the boats and the sky, and black and grey. As some of the prints found today show considerable traces of wear on the plates, we can assume that hundreds or thousands of prints were printed from the same plates. The peaceful Edo period (1603 - 1867) had led to new forms of expression as well as to the mass production of woodblock prints, such as those by Hokusai.




    [1]              At 3776 m, this volcano is Japan's highest mountain. Its shape is elegant and at the same time monumental, memorable and easy to recognize. In Shintoism it is a holy place. Moreover, as it has repeatedly been a "source of artistic inspiration", not only for Hokusai. It was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2013.



    published September 2020