Off Kanagawa: Isolation, Identity, and Immortality in Hokusai's Great Wave
by Perry Nigro
Katushita Hokusai’s Great Wave is one of the most iconic images in Western art, its genesis as an Edo period woodblock print notwithstanding. While the titular wave is the dominating figure in the image, it was but one of several images included in Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, and it is the mountain that is the true focal point of the image. This article examines Hokusai’s personal relationship with Mt. Fuji as an object of devotion and symbol of eternal life, as well as the place of the mountain within the larger culture of Japan. It proposes that, when considered together, these elements combine in the Great Wave to represent Hokusai’s meditations on ideas of immortality and identity for both an artist and a nation.
Japanese Art
Katsushika Hokusai
Between 1807 and 1811, the Edo period novelist Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848) released a serialized version of his epic Strange Tales of the Crescent Moon (Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki). As historical fiction, it tells the story of a medieval warrior, Minamoto no Tametomo, and his involvement with the early Japanese royal line. Although a work of literature, or yomihon, it was accompanied by selected illustrations highlighting significant points in the story. One of the most poignant depicts the ritual suicide of Takama Isohagi, Tametomo's faithful retainer (fig. 1).
Katsushika Hokusai, Takama Isohagi, from Strange Tales of the Crescent Moon, (1807-11), British Museum, London, woodblock printed book, (22 x 15 cm). Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum.
Standing on a rocky shoreline, he plunges his sword into his stomach as a great wave breaks over him from the left, one which, the image implies, will soon wash away the effects of his action and cleanse the shoreline. The artist was Katsushika Hokusai.
As the act of a loyal servant Isohagi's suicide carries a personal meaning, but it can be read with a much deeper symbolism. In discussing Hokusai and his use of waveimagery, Christine Guth cites the work of Mary Douglas, who has argued that the human body is a “microcosm of society,” one which reacts to the particular pressures and requirements of that social experience.1 There can be no way, she maintains, that the body can be considered outside of its role in that social dimension.2 Thus from that interpretation, Isohagi becomes a surrogate for Japan, and his ritual sacrifice a symbolic emblem of the fundamental changes the country must undergo. It becomes significant, then, that Hokusai chose to portray both the act and to suggest what follows, the power of the crashing wave to both conquer and cleanse. I would submit that this early expression of the extrinsic power of waves by Hokusai serves as a precursor for the continued development of the wave metaphor that reaches its fullest expression in his most famous work, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura). By considering Hokusai's relationship to Mount Fuji, the West, and Japan itself, the Great Wave can be considered as his complete meditation on ideas of immortality and identity for both an artist and a nation. And of the realization that each may ultimately prove mortal.
Central, indeed critical, to any interpretation of the Hokusai's Great Wave is an examination of the relationship between the artist and the object at the focus of the image. Ironically, that is not the titular wave, but the diminished peak of Mount Fuji under the breaking crest. As one of the images in Hokusai's Thirty six Views of Mount Fuji, it remains the dominant element of the collection, even if, in this instance, it is overshadowed both literally and in terms of popular conception, by the wave itself.
Mount Fuji has an inescapable connection with the soul of Japan, often serving as a surrogate for the idea of Japan itself. So powerful is that relationship that it was said to be “too overpoweringly splendid” to be depicted in poetry or painting.3 It exists as icon, neither requiring nor permitting explanation, and its presence in this otherworldly dimension is illustrated in a legend from the reign of Korei (290-215 BCE), in which boulders fell from heaven to complete the mountain, thus making Fuji a synthesis of both heaven and earth.4 As its peak was snow-covered for most of the year, Mount Fuji symbolized an obliviousness to time, and the mountain took on associations with immortality, which will prove to be significant as regards Hokusai's relationship with it.5
When the Tokugawa Shogunate established its new capital in Edo, the resulting influx of citizens made Mount Fuji intimately accessible to a much larger segment of society. As it was visible from almost all of the city, it became part of the urban fabric and, ultimately, an object of considerable worship and devotion. As part of Japan's long association with mountains as sacred, ritual objects, it is no surprise that Fuji would draw its own unique followers, and the growing group of Fuji devotees came to be known by the generalized name of Fuji-ko, a comprehensive term for the various assemblies (ko) professing a devotion to the mountain.6 Founded by the mystic Kakugyo in the 16th century, Fuji-ko was already well established when the capitol was moved to Edo, and benefited from Fuji's proximity and increased importance in the city. When the charismatic Fuji-ko leader Jikigyo Miroku died on the mountain in 1733, after a fast complete with ecstatic visions, the power of the mountain as a transcendental force increased.7
By Hokusai's time, then, the myth and cult of Fuji is firmly established in the Japanese psyche, and it is therefore tempting to read his preoccupation with the mountain as a reflection of that faith. But while the artistic association between man and mountain in works such as the Thirty-six Views is self-evident, its underlying reasons are somewhat less obvious, and tend to argue against Hokusai's belief in the Fuji-ko, though not without some debate. Henry Smith, in Hokusai: One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, argues that Hokusai was a follower of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, sect, particularly the cult of the Boddhisattva Myoken, which provides a different link between him and the mountain. The Boddhisattva was the personification of the Big Dipper, and two of the many names Hokusai used, Hokusai and Taito, refer to the North Star around which the Dipper revolves.8 The North Star can be interpreted as a symbol of stability, echoing the “timelessness” or immortality inherent in Fuji that was seen earlier, and by referring to himself by that name we can see Hokusai's personal identification with the idea and, by extension, the mountain.
Timothy Clark, however, points out the work of Kano Hitoyuki, who believes that Hokusai's use of the name Tsuchimochi Jinasburo in 1837, shortly after the 100 Views was issued, carries an implicit acknowledgment of Fuji-ko.9 Tsuchimochi, he says, refers to members of the Fuji-ko who provide voluntary labor for municipal projects, and is too symbolic to be a coincidence. Further, the owner of the publishing firm for both the 100 Views and the Thirty-six Views series was thought to be a leader of a Fuji-ko assembly. Taken together, Clark says, the points represent a plausible counter to Smith's argument. Clark, however, does not address what I would submit is a truer connection between Hokusai and Fuji, one which Smith makes more explicit. The mountain, he says, is the “source of the secret of immortality,” which Hokusai alluded to in his use of a folk etymology for Fuji as Fu-shi, meaning “not death” or immortality.10 In the tale, the secret of eternal life was committed to a volcano, which then proceeded to continue to produce smoke, earning it the name “Fuji,” or “not death,” a mountain eternally alive.
This is particularly revealing when we consider it in terms of Hokusai's own preoccupation with immortality. In the colophon to Volume I of 100 Views, Hokusai himself writes:
Thus when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.11
Clearly, this was a man who did not entertain the thought of death, and his use of “one hundred” can be seen as symbolic of immortality rather than a hope for a specific age. In signing the colophon “Manji,” with its pictograph of a swastika, Hokusai is calling upon its Buddhist association with luck and long life, as well as its literal meaning of “10,000” or “one hundred times one hundred.”12 Even today, multiplying something by itself, to “square” it, is sometimes a colloquial way of expressing infinity. Hokusai is expressing his intention to become immortal, tying him forever to the established immortality of Mount Fuji. I would suggest that in an analysis of that immortality in the context of The Great Wave, it will be shown just how well he was able to achieve that synthesis, and what it meant for both the artist and the nation.
Equally as important as Hokusai's relationship to Mount Fuji in a consideration of the Great Wave is his awareness of encroaching Western influences, and the way they were represented in his art. Hokusai was no doubt influenced by the work of one of his contemporaries, Shiba Kokan (1747-1818). Kokan was part of the Rangakusha, a loose collective of artists and scientists devoted—or certainly interested in—Western principles.13 Kokan believed Western art was superior to Japanese, going so far as to imitate copperplate engravings, and eventually discovering how to make Western-style etchings by studying Dutch art books. After making a trip to Nagasaki, Japan's only port open to foreigners, Kokan made a series of sketches depicting the views of the beach he had seen along the journey. Entitled A View of the Seven League Beach at Kamakura in Sagami Province (Soshu Kamakura Shichirigahama no zu), they depict a beach with the island of Enoshima in the mid-ground and Mount Fuji in the distance, with waves breaking on the beach. Significantly, the waves break from left to right, in imitation of a Western approach to viewing the image.
The question arises as to whether we can say Hokusai saw Kokan's prints, beyond assuming that their parallel career paths would have made Hokusai familiar with his work. We do know, however, that Kokan distributed copies of his beach prints to temples and shrines around the country. Matthi Forrer makes the intriguing case that it was almost certain that Hokusai saw them, and points to a Hokusai composition entitled Springtime at Enoshima (Enoshima shunbo) from the poetry album The Willow Branch (Yanagi no ito) as proof (fig. 2)
Katsushika Hokusai, Springtime at Enoshima (Enoshima shunbo) from the poetry album The Willow Branch (Yanagi no ito) (1797), British Museum, London, woodblock print (24.9 x 38 cm). Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum.
it, Hokusai has composed a scene almost identical to Kokan's, with a group of people gathered on the shore as a large wave breaks on the beach, again from left to right. Hokusai chose a slightly higher vantage point, but the use of perspective in creating depth is distinctly Western and follows from Kokan.14 Forrer is, I believe, correct in asserting that an independent composition on Hokusai's part would be too much of a coincidence.
Hokusai's use of Western techniques was not limited to imitating the works of Kokan. To the contrary, he became adept at landscape scenes with western perspective almost by virtue of necessity, as they were a prominent part of the catalog of his publisher Nishimuraya Yohachi, and were popular themes in the commercial market. At the beginning of the 19th century he began experimenting with adapting the effects of oil paint and copperplate into woodblock prints, techniques which, while traditionally thought of in a western context, had already been used in Japanese art.15 One of the major points in Forrer's discussion is the careful distinction between Hokusai as innovator and adaptor.16 Unlike Kokan, who believed Western art superior and strove to create Japanese art in that vernacular, Hokusai was more interested in adapting Western principles to Japanese landscapes and perspective composition. It is not that he was attempting to create Western art, but that he knew how to use those techniques to further the expression of Japanese art. In that sense, his art was tied much more closely to the idea and spirit of Japan than was Kokan's.
But the question must be raised concerning the larger implications following from the use of western perspective and realism. As they began to have a greater importance in Japanese art through the works of artists such as Kokan, Hokusai, Hiroshige and others, can those Western artistic influences be read as implicitly foreshadowing the forthcoming Western influence over Japan as a whole; i.e. does the artist's awareness of the West read as a larger Japanese awareness of eventual Western influence—and considerations of forced domination—over the country itself? It should not be forgotten that during Hokusai's lifetime, there was a distinct possibility that Japan would re-open its borders to the West following an expansive model outlined by Senior Councillor Tanuma Okitsuga. After Tanuma's fall from power in 1786, those plans were abandoned, and their rejection is credited with a substantial role in creating the particular sense of Mount Fuji as a symbol of national identity.17 Surely any artist, especially one already practicing Western landscape techniques like Hokusai, would have been intrigued by the possibility of greater exposure to trends and themes in Western art, notwithstanding the official position of the government. I would submit that if we read the Great Wave as symbolic of a generalized sort of Western supremacy, and consider it together with Hokusai's relationship to Mount Fuji, then yes, the artist's awareness can be representative of the nation as a reluctant whole.
By the time Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji was issued in 1831, Hokusai was over seventy years old. Having passed the symbolic Japanese age of 61, when it was believed a person began anew, he felt he was only now producing acceptable work; previously, “nothing that I drew was worthy of notice.”18 It would seem fitting, then, that an artist with a deep personal attachment to Mt. Fuji would find this an auspicious time to begin work on a series devoted exclusively to honoring that relationship. Combining that with an acute awareness of Western landscape and perspective techniques, I believe Hokusai synthesized all those complementary elements in his most celebrated work, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), known more simply as the Great Wave (fig. 3),
Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei), (c. 1830–32), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, polychrome woodblock print, (25.7 x 37.9 cm). Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
thereby offering commentary on Western expansion, Japanese isolationism, and the mortality of men and nations.
The image has become so iconic that it needs virtually no description. Three oshiokuri-bune, or fast fishing boats, have been caught in the waves off the coast. One wave roils in the foreground, while to the right of the scene the sea continues to rise. Everything, however, even Mount Fuji in the background, is threatened by the monstrous wave that breaks from left to right and gives the image its title. This is Hokusai's definitive statement on waves, a process we saw him begin years earlier in imitation of Kokan and refine in works such as Rowing Boats in Waves at Oshiokuri (Oshiokuri hato tsusen no zu), which shares a similar composition the Great Wave, but lacks its particular dynamism. What, then, was Hokusai saying with the Great Wave that makes it resonate even today, and how does it relate to what has been presented about the artist himself?
Christine Guth offers an intriguing argument about the Great Wave as symbolic of a changing Japanese society, which we can then extrapolate to Hokusai and his role within it. Traditionally, the sea had a protective connotation within Japan as a barrier to the outside world, and waves were considered a sort of active defense.19 In the Great Wave, however, the fishing boats represent elements of Japan actively engaging that outside world, with the eventual outcome far from certain. That in itself was an unfamiliar concept, as traditional Japanese tests of inner strength involved a retreat to the mountains; the sea as proving ground is a distinctly Western concept.20 More significant, I believe, is what Hokusai may have been suggesting even more directly to the Japanese themselves, though he is careful to present it as confidently as possible. The sea has ceased to be a protective barrier, and is instead the medium through which Japan will encounter the world rather than the bulwark protecting them from it; Hokusai's brave fisherman in their oshiokuri-bune are nothing less than the vanguard of that engagement. But with the symbolic role of mountains in Japanese culture and his own particular attachment to Mount Fuji in particular, I believe that by intending the singular wave that dominates the scene to be read as a mountain itself, so that the sea becomes land, he re-establishes and re-affirms the importance of the mountain metaphor in Japanese culture. In doing so, he can say that the literal mountains are no longer where we will seek to prove ourselves; they can no longer be our means of escape, because the outside world will not come from there. It will, instead, come from the sea, and by casting the wave as mountain Hokusai symbolized that reality for a new enlightened age, but couched it in the familiar shape and idiom of a mountain. It was his attempt at reassuring the Japanese in the face of an uncertain future.
By presenting the idea of the wave as the symbol of foreign fears, Hokusai allows the viewer to “engage the idea of an overseas 'elsewhere' while maintaining only limited contact with . . . non-Japanese peoples and cultures.”21 The threat is there, but it's not here, at least not yet, and he has created a sort of buffer between the present and the inevitable future. Henry Smith even suggests that Hokusai's extensive use of the bero blue pigment can be seen as representative of the world outside Japan. Blue brought the sea and sky into the viewer's immediate experience, and reinforced Japan's relationship with the sense of boundary those elements represented. Implicit in the idea of boundary, however, is the idea of what lies beyond it, which would here be the Western world. Smith, discussing the work of Japanese historian Sasaki Seiichi who equates the color blue itself with the “advanced culture” of the West, is even more general himself, suggesting that blue was not country-specific, but represented the wider world into which the Japanese were being inevitably drawn.22
While the great wave may have become omnipresent by virtue of its size and significant in terms of symbolic meaning, it is not the true focus of the scene. This image is one of a series, one concerned with multiple views of Mount Fuji. It is Fuji that is at the center, and where many of the ideas already discussed converge. The mountain is slightly off center, and seen from a distance, again reinforcing the idea that we are “outside” of Japan, or even possibly that the view is from a foreign ship.23 The Great Wave moves from left to right in the Western convention, again suggesting the inevitable dialogue with the West. It seems about to crash over Mount Fuji, and even the very tips of the wave appear like hands seeking an overpowering grip. But it doesn't, and in that frozen uncertainty Hokusai is mirroring the uncertainty in Japan. He is, Guth says, acutely aware of the dynamism of the suspended moment, likening the Great Wave to a kabuki actor striking a mie pose, emphasizing the moment for the viewer and making them anxious for what comes next.24 But even more important than the implied uncertainty of the future, and critical for understanding the relationship between Hokusau, Fuji, and Japan, is the sense of continuity Fuji represents in the image. Hokusai has given us the sea as land, taken away the idea of mountain as refuge, rendered Fuji as a background element on the brink of obliteration, and yet it is still there. It is a stark illustration of the immortality of Fuji, both in the national consciousness and as relates to Hokusai's personal connection to it and to his “second life” as a first step to a similar longevity. If we then consider the smaller foreground wave, so close in shape, to be a representation of Fuji itself, that sense of continuity and immortality becomes even more pronounced; not only has the sea become land and the wave mountain, but this wave has become the mountain. So strong is the idea of Fuji and its identification with Japan that it has recreated itself in the very forces threatening the nation. It has been transformed and survived, and so too, Hokusai is saying (with hopes for his own immortality), will Japan.
Critics and connoisseurs have speculated at length about the unique appeal of the Great Wave, why that image above all others has come to serve as visual shorthand for Japan itself. As with any aesthetic discussion of art the exercise is ultimately redundant, since our appreciation of a particular work, or even of a more broader style, depends upon many personal, subjective factors. It is necessary, then, to look beneath the surface, to see what larger issues the artist was struggling with in his attempt to reach a more universal truth. And here Hokusai grappled with some of the most fundamental and profound, as he asked what it meant to be a nation, to engage the world while retaining yourself, and hoping he would have an eternity in which to find the answer. As someone who believed he would never stop learning, he might be glad to know that we are still looking for those answers.
1 Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (London: Routlledge, 1996), 74, 77, as cited by Guth in “Hokusai’s Great Waves in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Visual Culture,” The Art Bulletin 93, no. 4 (December 2011): 74, 77.
2 Ibid., 74.
3 Royall Tyler, “A Glimpse of Mt. Fuji in Legend and Cult,” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 16, no. 2 (November 1, 1981): 140, doi:10.2307/489324.
4 Ibid., 141, ciiting Nihon Horaizan, in Yokoyama Shigeru and Shinoda Jun'ichi, eds., Kojoruri shu, v.1 (Koten bunko, v.169), Koten bunko, 1961, p.7.
5 Timothy Clark, 100 Views of Mount Fuji (London: The British Museum Press, 2011), 10.
6 Henry D. Smith, Hokusai: One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1988), 9.
7 Ibid., 10.
8 Ibid.
9 Clark, 100 Views, 19.
10 Smith, Hokusai: One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, 10.
11 Ibid., 7.
12 Ibid., 15.
13 Matthi Forrer, “Western Influences in the Works of Hokusai,” in Hokusai: Bridging East and West (Japan: Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Inc., 1998), 197.
14 Matthi Forrer, “Western Influences in Hokusai’s Art,” in Hokusai, ed. Gian Carlo Calza (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2003), 26.
15 Forrer, “Western Influences in the Works of Hokusai,” 195.
16 Forrer, “Western Influences in Hokusai’s Art,” 26.
17 Clark, 100 Views, 23.
18 Smith, Hokusai: One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, 7.
19 Christine M.E. Guth, “Hokusai’s Great Waves in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Visual Culture,” The Art Bulletin 93, no. 4 (December 2011): 468.
20 Ibid., 472.
21 Ibid, quoting the historian Marcia Yonemoto.
22 Henry D. Smith, “Hokusai and the Blue Revolution in Edo Prints,” in Hokusai and His Age: Ukiyo-E Painting, Printmaking and Book Illustration in Edo Japan, ed. John T. Carpenter (Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005), 261,262.
23 Guth, “Hokusai’s Great Waves in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Visual Culture,” 473.
24 Ibid., 474.
Clark, Timothy. 100 Views of Mount Fuji. London: The British Museum Press, 2011.
Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols: Exlplorations in Cosmology. London: Routledge, 1996.
Forrer, Matthi. “Western Influences in Hokusai’s Art.” In Hokusai, edited by Gian Carlo Calza. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2003.
Forrer, Matthi. “Western Influences in the Works of Hokusai.” In Hokusai: Bridging East and West (In Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Artist's Death), 192–98. Japan: Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Inc., 1998.
Guth, Christine M.E. “Hokusai’s Great Waves in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Visual Culture.” The Art Bulletin 93, no. 4 (December 2011): 468+.
Smith, Henry D. “Hokusai and the Blue Revolution in Edo Prints.” In Hokusai and His Age: Ukiyo-E Painting, Printmaking and Book Illustration in Edo Japan, edited by John T. Carpenter. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005.
Smith, Henry D. Hokusai: One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1988.
Tyler, Royall. “A Glimpse of Mt. Fuji in Legend and Cult.” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 16, no. 2 (November 1, 1981): 140–65. doi:10.2307/489324.
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