While many Americans were thinking about July 4th as American independence, I was fascinated by a different freedom—the freeing of amazing Japanese art 169 years ago. On July 8, 1853, American naval Commodore Matthew Perry led four ships into Tokyo harbor seeking the first discussions and trade relations with Japan in more than 200 years. In reality, he forced the country open.
One consequence was a flood of Japanese art that poured into the Western world, most prominently the woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Many art historians and artists and average Joes have called this one of the most famous works of art in the world. So why has it fascinated so many people from so many walks of life and so many cultures for so long?
The Old Man and the Mountainous Sea
Katsushika Hokusai was in his seventies when he created the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (technically forty-six prints). The most famous piece from that collection, and most famous and recognizable of all Japanese art, is The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831). Hokusai seemed to know he created something special, stating that any art he made prior to seventy wasn’t worth talking about (not true) and even calling himself “Old Man Crazy to Paint.”
His fellow countrymen recognized something special too. During this time, Japan was cut off from the world, except for limited interaction with China and the Netherlands, due to government imposed isolation. As an archipelago, that isolation was achieved through political control over sea travel.
And since no one is ever more than 93 miles from any of the four bordering seas, the water has long been revered in Japan. But during Hokusai’s time it was also feared because foreign travel was illegal. The Great Wave symbolizes the real unpredictable danger of the sea, as well as potential enemies on the horizon.
Because of the isolation, Japan enjoyed economic and military stability in the 1830s, allowing domestic travel. The Japanese held Mount Fuji as sacred, even spawning cults, but Hokusai took the obsession to great heights. Practicing Nichiren Buddhism, Hokusai felt a connection to Mount Fuji, worshiping the mountain. Because of the country’s love for the mountain, between 5,000 and 8,000 copies were made from Hokusai’s woodblocks (called ukiyo-e) as souvenirs for domestic tourists visiting Tokyo, the sea, and Mount Fuji.
The Spirit and the Color
The Japanese believed Mount Fuji held the secret to eternal life. Hokusai sought artistic immortality in painting the mountain, but I think he believed honoring it could grant him eternal life. One thing is sure, The Great Wave put Hokusai’s art in front of more people than he could have ever imagined. As an artist he was already famous in Japan, but when it came to a single piece of art, The Great Wave immediately became iconic: because of the “movement” and the use of an unknown color—Prussian blue.
Blue was revered in Japan, symbolizing the mystical world. But using the chemically manufactured Prussian blue created a captivating dimension. It is difficult to emphasize how mesmerized people were by this wood block pigment. And yet, blue has had spiritual meaning across cultures for millennia.
Artist Alva William Steffler says, “Cerulean blue, the color of the sky on a sunny day, has a natural symbolic connection to heaven.”¹ I find it interesting that because of the perspective, Hokusai’s blue wave hangs over the top of colossal Mount Fuji. I’m not sure that Hokusai intended it to symbolize heaven here. Although blue represented the mystical world, eternity (in the Judeo-Christian “third heaven” sense), doesn’t jive with Nichiren Buddhism’s teaching that Buddhahood (heaven) exists in our bodies.
In a turn of poetic justice, the blue pigment used for the tumultuous sea came from outside Japan, from potentially tumultuous foreigners. But behind the wave, Mount Fuji—Japan’s traditional “soul”—symbolically stands steadfast and isolated. And yet the white foam wave has striking similarities with the snow-capped mountain, and vice versa. If we’re inclined to call Hokusai a prophet, we might say he foresaw Japan and the outside world rapidly intermingling. And if we wanted to be morbid, the fishermen’s brave faces in the face of the wave’s deadliness could point toward the death of the Edo period’s isolated Japanese culture at the hands of foreigners.
As mentioned, when Commodore Perry forced open the gates in 1853, Japanese culture trickled out. But it wasn’t until the late 1860s that trade flooded out and prints of Hokusai’s internally famous work made waves around the world. The International Exposition in Paris of 1867 featured The Great Wave, where major global audiences beheld the art for the first time.
The following year saw Japan’s political revolution known as the Meiji restoration (ending the Edo period). Simultaneously, as the Meiji period ushered in Japan’s modernization and Westernization, the West became interested in Japanese culture. Art and artifacts started appearing in Paris and London shops. Europe and America became obsessed with Japanese architecture, landscaping, fashion, and visual and performing arts, even garnering a term: Japonisme. The Great Wave was becoming well-known during this time, but an act of God propelled the image even further.
In 1896, a tsunami hit northern Japan, resulting in worldwide photographic coverage of the destruction. Because no camera captured the actual wave, newspapers supplemented Hokusai’s wave instead. Scientists are adamantly opposed to calling Hokusai’s wave a tsunami, but regardless of the misnomer, the images brought the work worldwide recognition.
It wasn’t just that global audiences recognized The Great Wave, artists became fascinated too. Dr. Leila Harris explains, “Impressionist artists in Paris, such as Claude Monet, were great fans of Japanese prints. The flattening of space, an interest in atmospheric conditions, and the impermanence of modern city life—all visible in Hokusai’s prints—both reaffirmed their own artistic interests and inspired many future works of art.” There are many stories throughout the decades of the legacy of The Great Wave impacting future artists, an impact that can’t be underestimated.
As I was researching my upcoming annual ’80s comparison article (like this one) I wondered if The Great Wave impacted 1982, and was pleasantly surprised. In 1981, brand new company VM Software hired design agency Grafik to create a futuristic image for their ’82 trade shows. Grafix co-founder Judy Kirpich explains, “[W]e conceived a poster that would take the famous Hokusai wave and morph it into a new format—representing the transition from analog to digital and is reflective of where the software/hardware industry was starting to move.” No one could have guessed how creating digital art would revolutionize the world, or how influential The Great Wave would continue to be in the digital age.
Kanagawa’s Waves Nowadays
The average viewer nowadays may recognize the Great Wave emoji but doesn’t know the aforementioned history of ukiyo-e art or Prussian blue. And yet The Great Wave fascinates people. Like, a lot of people. Why? There are many components contributing to the work’s success, but there are two major factors. First, the multiple levels of meaning, encouraging many interpretations. Second, the artistic style as a cultural translation.
Regarding many interpretations, the art site Widewalls answers,
What makes this work unique and omnipresent on the art scene still today could be the presence of all of these three important levels [the spiritual, socio-historical, and Hokusai’s personal meanings] which allow multiple readings, combined with the perfection of composition and usage of color.
I was cruising the Exhibit Hall at WonderCon this year and saw a Great Wave pin at the NerdPins booth. I bought it immediately (along with a The Shining pin) but months later still haven’t taken it out of the package. Sure, I’m a bit of an in-box collector, but the packaging is so cool I just want to display it. I asked the pin’s creator, Joe VanDyke, what inspired him to make the art. He said, “I’ve been a fan of the Hokusai wave woodblock design for a long time, and love the simplicity and power of the wave! A lot of my pins are inspired by concepts and ideas, but this one is just a simple tribute pin to the wave and Japanese style of art!”
The second reason for longevity, that of cultural translation, is equally compelling. The YouTube channel “Great Art Explained” says, “Ironically, this print which in the West is seen as a characteristically Japanese image, is in fact a hybrid of Japanese and European ideas.” By taking foundational points from two cultures, Hokusai provided access for both societies to feel comfortable while exploring the foreign.Again, Whitewalls fills in the details:
[Hokusai] made the unknown culture of Japan easily readable to the Western world by using elements of the Western style [i.e. “use of color, the composition… which uses the Western principle of reading from left to right… low horizon and an element of dynamism through the movement of the wave”], but also keeping the important elements of Japanese traditional techniques and motifs.
Hokusai somehow checked all the boxes that his culture expected and celebrated, and married Western techniques together. So Western artists saw something simultaneously new and familiar and paid tribute. “Hokusai’s Great Wave has inspired myriad works of contemporary art,” reads the My Modern Met page, “including a monumental mural in Moscow, an environmental installation in Florida, and even the cat drawings of a Malaysian artist in Paris.” Because art appealing to the masses is often based upon an audience’s prior exposure, The Great Wave resonates with us as something foreign yet familiar.
Foreign Yet Familiar
How many other works of art could make a statement like that? Whether you are from the source culture (Japan) or another culture that has viewed Westernized art, almost anyone can find aspects of The Great Wave both foreign and familiar. It’s because there is something familiar but just out of reach mirrored in our own lives.
Jesus was the original master artisan creating the spiritual realm and overlaying the physical world around it. When our eyes are opened to the spiritual, there is something foreign yet familiar. Jesus said we are in the world but not of the world. No better statement encapsulates our two natures and two citizenships. Jesus is the way the truth and the life, so when He promises us eternity, it is both an abundant life on earth and paradise in literal heaven with Him.
Hokusai not only was masterful enough to know he should merge elements, he also knew exactly which ones to merge. In the same way, because of Jesus’s attributes, the spiritual realm contains truth and justice (but not “the American way”) and goodness and mercy. Since He allowed choice and freewill in the earthly, physical sphere, the opposite of positive and beneficial qualities could also be birthed. Christ knew to merge and what to merge. On earth there is beauty in works of art and Creation, but there is also a knowledge of incompleteness; even in grandeur there is still a hollowness, something missing.
From the Beach
For all his accomplishments, Hokusai begged for five more years on his deathbed. He believed that was when he could transcend and become a true master. The Great Wave is truly a master work: it connected with the Japanese in the 1830s, with Westerners during Japonisme, and with a global audience today. It speaks to us on multiple levels of consciousness while providing alternating translation between cultures. But perhaps its greatest gift is the perspective that each of us contain familiar and foreign qualities in our lives.
The best understanding for this that I’ve found is Jesus’s request for us to be comfortable with discomfort. The ability to balance opposing views and feelings. To recognize that we’re on the beach of life. We stand on the comfortable, tangible earth, but we’re looking across the anomalous, incorporeal waters of heaven. We can’t allow our feet to sink into the sand as another world’s waves lap over us, instead we must embrace the slight discomfort of the foreign while we remain on the beach. Like the balance of The Great Wave, how much more vital that our lives find symmetry between the foreignness of our spiritual nature and the familiarity of our earthly lives?
- Alva William Steffler, Symbols of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 131.