The great wave
A look at how Japan views the sea—and itself
Jun 2nd 2011 | from the print edition
AT AROUND the age of 70, Katsushika Hokusai, still bounding with artistic energy, created “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”, a series of ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints. His most famous, since reproduced on everything from Tintin books to tea cups, is “Beneath the Wave off Kanagawa”, painted around 1830.
Most Westerners, when viewing it, focus on the wave itself, which towers over Mount Fuji in a show of almost implacable force, all the more terrifying considering the three fragile boats under it. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, wrote in “A History of the World in 100 Objects” that the picture reflected frightened fishermen and an insecure, cloistered Japan about to be forced by American gunboats into the modern world. But Japanese art critics differ—and they have a point. In the picture the boatmen look more serene than fearful, as their vessels slice through the waves. Their stillness in the face of danger is all the more poignant in Japan, as they have a job to do. They are racing to deliver fresh fish to market, and yet they remain, as far as many Japanese see it, in delicate balance with nature.