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“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai

"The Great Wave off Kanagawa" by Katsushika Hokusai

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Hokusai which he published in 1831. It was the first print in his series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The image depicts an enormous rogue wave threatening boats off the coast of the town of Kanagawa, just off the present-day city of Yokohama. The print shows seasick fishermen in three boats with a wave about to crash down on them. As in many of the prints in the series, it depicts Mount Fuji, in the background.

Considered Hokusai’s most famous work, it is also one of the most recognisable works of Japanese art in the world. Impressions of the print can be seen in many museums around the world. The inscription is a signature in the upper left-hand corner. During his career, Hokusai used more than 30 different names in his signature. He always beginning a new cycle of works by changing his name in the signature and letting his students use the earlier title. Vincent van Gogh was a great admirer of Hokusai, and he praised the drawing and the use of line in the Great Wave.

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji is a series of landscape prints by Hokusai, that depicts Mount Fuji from different locations and in various seasons and weather conditions. Despite its name, it consists of 46 prints, with 10 of them being added after the initial publication. The series was produced from 1830 to 1832 when Hokusai was in his seventies and at the height of his career. Among the prints are three of Hokusai’s most famous: The Great Wave off Kanagawa (or The Great Wave); Fine Wind, Clear Morning; and Rainstorm Beneath the Summit.

Katsushika Hokusai

Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) began painting at the age of six, and at sixteen he was apprenticed as an engraver and spent three years learning the trade. At the same time, he began to produce his own illustrations. At eighteen he was accepted as an apprentice to Katsukawa Shunshō, one of the foremost ukiyo-e artists of the time.

Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese art which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries. Its artists produced woodblock prints and paintings of beautiful women, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, scenes from history and landscapes. In 1814, Hokusai published the first of fifteen volumes of sketches entitled Manga.

Woodblock Printing

Woodblock printing in Japan although similar to the woodcut technique in Western printmaking differs in that it uses water-based inks, as opposed to oil-based inks. The Japanese water-based inks provide a more comprehensive range of vivid colours, glazes, and transparency. Woodblock printing had been used in China for centuries before the advent of movable type and was widely adopted in Japan during the Edo period (1603–1868).

Mount Fuji

The mountain with a snow-capped peak is Mount Fuji, which in Japan is considered sacred and a symbol of national identity. Mount Fuji is an iconic figure in many Japanese representations of famous places, as it is regarded as a symbol of beauty.

The dark colour around Mount Fuji seems to indicate that the scene occurs early in the morning, with the sun rising from behind the observer, illuminating the mountain’s snowy peak. While storm clouds hang in the sky between the viewer and Mount Fuji, no rain is visible.

Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan at 3,776.24 m (12,389 ft). It is a dormant volcano that last erupted in 1707–1708. Mount Fuji lies about 100 kilometres (60 mi) south-west of Tokyo and can be seen from there on a clear day. Mount Fuji’s exceptionally symmetrical cone, which is snow-capped for about five months a year, is a well-known symbol of Japan. Mount Fuji has “inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimage for centuries”.


  • Is this one of the most recognisable works of Japanese art in the world?
  • Why did Vincent van Gogh, a great admirer of Hokusai, say that this print had a terrifying emotional impact?
  • Why did Japanese woodblock prints become a source of inspiration for Impressionists?
  • Why was “The Great Wave” so widely adopted by modern Western culture? – It can be seen on t-shirts, tattoos, emojis, artworks, beer ads and covers.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

  • Title:                  The Great Wave off Kanagawa (also known as The Great Wave)
  • Artist:                 Katsushika Hokusai
  • Created:             1831
  • Materials:           Colour woodblock print on paper
  • Genre:                Ukiyo-e painting, manga and woodblock printing
  • Dimensions:       H: 24.6 cm (9.6 in); W: 36.8 cm (14.4 in)
  • Museum:            The British Museum

Katsushika Hokusai

Collections of the British Museum

Ancient Egypt and Sudan Collection

The Middle East Collection

Ancient Greece and Rome Collection

The Britain, Europe and Prehistory Collection

The Asian Collection

The Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection

The Prints and Drawings Collection


“A frog in a well does not know the great sea.”
– Japanese Proverb


Photo Credit: 1) Katsushika Hokusai [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons