The Great Wave Off Kanagawa: 5 Little Known Facts About Hokusai’s Masterpiece

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is one of the most iconic pieces of Japanese art history. Take a closer look for details on Hokusai’s printed masterpiece.

Jun 21, 2020By Lou Mo, BA Art History w/ Chinese Art & Asian Studies concentration
great wave off kanagawa
The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, 1830, British Museum


Kanagawa is a place associated with the oft-reproduced image of a power blue waves of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. It is an image we see everywhere, from t-shirts and tote bags, to laptop covers and travel mugs. Sometimes we forget what else is in it. When you look at a current map of Japan, Kanagawa is not a name you see right away either. After all these copies and years, what does it really take to understand this masterful print? Knowing about the location, the composition, and production of the print will lead to a better understanding of Japanese prints and the significance of this particular work.


The Great Wave Off Kanagawa


The Great Wave off Kanagawa is set at Kanagawa-juku (juku means relay station in Japanese), one of the stations on the Eastern Sea Route, called the Tokaido. Tokaido, meaning ‘close to the coast,’ is an extremely important route from the Edo period (1603-1868 AD), connecting major cities of Kyoto in the West and Edo (modern day Tokyo) in the East. It is much more crowded than inland Nakasendo, and the Central Mountain Road connecting the same cities. Groups of travelers and merchants went up and down this route each night, resting at a juku equipped with stables, room and board. The stations on the road, as well as checkpoints, are government controlled. In total, there are fifty-three stations on the Tokaido, each of them about a day’s march apart. Kanagawa is the third station from Tokyo. Currently, Kanagawa is a ward in the city of Yokohama in the Greater Tokyo Area, now famed for its contemporary art triennale.


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Kanagawa from 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1832, National Museum of Korea


Kanagawa is also depicted by other artists of the period as a famous site on a route busy with mercantile activity that we often associate with Edo effervescence. Another famous ukiyo-e artist, Utagawa Hiroshige created a series called The Fifty-three stations of the Tokaido featuring the respective number of prints each depicting a juku on the road. In Hiroshige’s version, contemporary to Hokusai’s, we see a much calmer scene under a tranquil sky, half blue sea and half darker on land. A number of ships dot the port and merchants laden with baskets full of goods walk back to us on the Eastern Sea Route. It is a scene of prosperity and humanity, different from Hokusai’s version. Nowadays, the equivalent of the Tokaido can be covered in a few hours by Japan Railways trains connecting Tokyo to Osaka via Nagoya and Kyoto. The footpath of the olden days only remain in parts and is no longer actively trailed. 


Katsushika Hokusai: Crazy About Painting 

express delivery boats rowing hokusai print
Express Delivery Boats Rowing through Waves by Katsushika Hokusai, 1800, Boston Museum of Fine Arts


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This work is the first in a series, called The Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, by the ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokuasi in the early 1830s. Hokusai is a master in composition. He skillfully incorporates geometric shapes into his painting to catch the viewer’s eye. Here, the stable triangular shape of Mt. Fuji retreats to the background, under an ominous grey sky. The foreground is entirely dominated by waves outlined by curved lines and colored in different shades of blue, emanating a sense of movement. The drama is accentuated by the thrust of the white foam projected by the wave’s strength. A few yellow boats manned by minuscule oarsmen can be seen through the waves, toiling to stay alive in this agitated moment, bent before the force of the nature. The largest of the waves seems to follow an invisible circle larger than Mount Fuji. In this series, these triangular, circular, and parallel shapes are used consistently but masterfully masked into elements of the composition to create visual dynamics. It is a work created by the artist towards the end of his life, in full command of his skills and incorporating some Western ideas and techniques. The themes of both waves and Mount Fuji have intrigued Hokusai throughout his career. We can see a similar composition foreshadowing that of the The Great Wave off Kanagawa from around 1800, the Express Delivery Boats Rowing through Waves


All About Mount Fuji

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Fine Wind, Clear Weather by Katshushika Hokusai, 1830, Private Collection


The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a part of a series of woodblock prints produced to illustrate the beauty of Mount Fuji. The Fujiyama holds a very special place in Japan. It is their tallest mountain and most sacred. Located close to the Eastern sea coast, it is visible as travellers trailed the Tokaido. Most Japanese would try to climb to the top of Mount Fuji at least once in their lifetime. It has continuously inspired artists, poets, writers and many more, reflected in a myriad depictions in artistic representation. Another print from this series by Hokusai is equally famous. Often referred to under the name of Red Fuji, Fine Wind, Clear Weather, it is The Great Wave off Kanagawa’s next of kin. In this print, we see simply the triangular shape of a red-tinted and majestic Fuji under the morning sun, a few traces of white reminds us of its iconic snowy volcanic top, against a cloudy sky in different hues of blue. A green area of vegetation scrawls up its foot, but the mountain dominates the scene, devoid of human presence. A reproduction of Find Wind, Clear Weather once sold for more than five hundred thousand US dollars!


The Color Of The Sea 

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Kabuki Actor Ōtani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei in the Play The Colored Reins of a Loving Wife by Tōshūsai Sharaku 1794, Metropolitan Museum of Art


For a very long time in art history, paint did not come in neat and numbered little metal tubes you can buy in stores. Or even as intense and as vibrant as the artist would want it. The Great Wave off Kanagawa is dominated by the intensity of the blue in the foreground. For this print, Hokusai used newly introduced imported Prussian blue. It is much more concentrated and potent than the traditional vegetal alternative. Different types of dyes would also age differently. For example, prints of kabuki actors, the superstars of the Edo period, were often produced with shiny mica mineral pigment as a decorative element. They are originally shiny and metallic but overtime would oxidize and grow dark. What we see now are thus very different than the original intended result. In addition, the paper also ages to change color and become more brittle, and sometimes the print reacts to the way it is framed and exposed due to the amount and angle of exposure, light, etc.  


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Detail of a woodblock, British Museum


To produce a print such as The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, you will need several carved woodblocks to layer the different colors. First, the artist paints his design on paper, which is then transferred to a woodblock. The painted paper is fixed to the woodblock with a glue paste to do that. The artist can then start to carve the design into the wood. Different blocks fit together like a multi-step jigsaw puzzle, each depicting a part of the final print – the outlines, the blue expanse of the sky, the red mountain, etc. Each step is carefully carved and colored and its mirror image reproduced on paper. The final combination is only viewed on the paper and now visualized on the woodblock. 


Great Wave Off Kanagawa Replications

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Cover of La Mer. orchestral score by Claude Debussy, 1905, British Museum


Ukiyo-e prints are meant to be available to many, reproduced in quantity, and to be offered in single sheet print or bound book format. Unlike modern collector prints, 19th century Japanese prints do not come with a neat number of copies made. We can only estimate the original reproduction quantity according to the popularity of the artist and the work, but we remain unsure how many of them have survived through long years of wear, fire, tears, spills, stains and more. Fortunately, prints are a very affordable and popular category both in Japan and aboard. Its influence is broad and important. As early as 1905, music scores in Europe appear with a cover inspired by The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. A good quantity of prints remain in circulation. 


great wave off kanagawa print
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, later than 1830, Harvard Art Museums


Sometimes, experts are able to date the prints according to their physical appearance. How do they do that? And what do they look for? Like all things, the original woodblocks will experience wear after so being used so many times. They become victims of their own popularity. Some parts wear out first, such as the finer outline areas between different colors. Prints made at that stage will lose parts, usually the extremities, of some sharp lines that exist in the first prints, and the demarcations between different colors start to become fuzzy and merge together. Gradually, even some written word characters for the inscription will began to lose their edge. The printer will eventually decide to replace a couple of blocks in the set that he uses to make the final print or to sell the set for money because he is no longer satisfied with the quality of prints he can make. Buying a used set of blocks is a common practice in East Asia both for book and prints publishers who cater to buyers of cheaper editions. The quality of the print, pigments and papers used will not be the same. 

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By Lou MoBA Art History w/ Chinese Art & Asian Studies concentrationI graduated with BA in Art History from McGill University and later studied Chinese Art in the Asian Studies division of Paris' École des hautes études en sciences sociales.