Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa gracefully distills the power of the ocean into a two-dimensional image that’s as deceptively simple as it is mesmerizing. But what lies beneath this beloved 19th-century artwork might surprise you.
1. Though it’s named for a wave, it’s also hiding a mountain.
2. It’s a print series, not a painting.
Though Hokusai was also a painter, the artist—who worked during the Edo period (1603-1868 in Japan)—was best known for his woodblock prints. The Great Wave off Kanagawa has become the most famous of his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. Full of vibrant color and compelling use of space, each of these prints depicts the towering peak from a different angle and environment.
3. Making the series was a savvy business move.
Mount Fuji is considered sacred by many and has inspired a literal cult following. So a series of portrait prints, easily mass-produced and sold at cheap prices, was a no-brainer. But when tourism to Japan later blossomed, the prints enjoyed a resurgence as part of a booming industry for souvenirs, especially if they depicted its magnificent mountain.
4. Hokusai had been painting for 60 years before creating this Wave.
Hokusai’s exact age has been difficult to pin down at the time of The Great Wave off Kanagawa’s making, but it’s commonly believed he was in his seventies. He began painting at age 6, and at 14, he served as an apprentice to a wood-carver. By 18, Hokusai was taking lessons from ukiyo-e style printmaker Katsukawa Shunshō. Unbeknownst to the young aspiring artist, this path would lead to one of Japan’s most iconic works of art.
5. The Great Wave off Kanagawa can be seen in museums all around the world.
Because it’s a woodblock print, there are lots of Great Waves to go around, and you can see them in museums across the globe. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the British Museum of London, the Art Institute of Chicago, LACMA of Los Angeles, Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, and Claude Monet’s oft-portrayed home and garden all boast a print.
6. Japan delayed this Wave from catching on worldwide.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa was likely printed between 1829 and 1832, but at the time, Japan was not engaging culturally with other nations except for trade with China and Korea (which was strictly controlled) and the Dutch, who were only allowed to operate in Nagasaki. Nearly 30 years would pass before political pressure pushed Japan to open up its ports and exports to foreign nations. In 1859, a wave of Japanese prints flowed across Europe, winning adoration from the likes of Vincent Van Gogh, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Claude Monet.
7. Japanese politicians and art historians didn’t view it as real art.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa rose to such fame that it became a definitive representation of Japanese art and culture to most of the world. But as art historian Christine Guth of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, explained to the BBC, “Within Japan, woodblock prints weren’t seen as art, they were seen as a popular form of expression and commercial printing.” Once used for Buddhist text, woodblock prints had become synonymous with illustrations for poems and romance novels. So Japan’s government officials and art historians were less than thrilled that such a seemingly lowbrow art form had come to define them.
8. The Great Wave off Kanagawa is not purely Japanese in its style.
Hokusai studied European works in addition to Japanese ones and was particularly inspired by the linear perspective used in Dutch art. His own variant on this device is evident in the low horizon line, while the European influence is apparent in his use of Prussian blue, a color quite popular on the continent at the time.
9. The earlier the print, the more highly valued it is.
It’s estimated that 5000 to 8000 prints were made of The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Unfortunately, over the course of all this production, the wood blocks used to stamp on colors would break down, and with them the quality of the image. This gradual degradation is why museums will brag about their prints being “early” issues.
10. Although they were once cheap, prints now fetch a high price.
Though thousands were printed, it’s estimated only hundreds of The Great Wave off Kanagawa remain. A specimen’s state determines its value. The first state from Nishimuraya Yohachi publishing featured a distinctive blue outline, while the second had a black outline. In 2015, the former was said to fetch $40,000 to $60,000, while the latter would command half that. Even a good replica could score a collector a few grand.
11. In a way, the print is signed twice.
In the upper left corner of the print, you'll note a box with writing inside and out. Within the box, Hokusai carved the name of the piece, including its place in the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series. But to its left he wrote “Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu,” which roughly translates to “From the brush of Hokusai changing to Iitsu.” Over the course of his career, Hokusai changed his name over 30 times. Today, these different names are used to distinguish the distinctive chapters of his work.
12. It inspired music.
French composer Claude Debussy shared the inspiration for his orchestral composition The Sea (La Mer) on the cover of its 1905 edition’s sheet music. There, a sketch fashioned after The Great Wave off Kanagawa gave music lovers an image to associate with his symphonic sketches. You can listen to it being performed above.
13. The series to which The Great Wave off Kanagawa belongs inspired poetry.
Looking upon Hokusai’s ambitious creation, Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke was struck by the diligence that must have gone into its making. And so his poem, “The Mountain,” was born, beginning, “Six and thirty times and hundred times/the painter tried to capture the mountain,/tore it up, then pushed on again/ (six and thirty times and hundred times).”
14. The print inspired an emoji.
15. That wave is no tsunami.
The great might of the wave makes the mountain look minute, and the boats that bob beneath it seem doomed for destruction. Such a suggestion of violence has spurred many to assume The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a tsunami. But scholars Julyan H.E. Cartwright and Hisami Nakamura studied the print and what we know about waves to determine that it’s in fact a rogue wave, or, more scientifically, “a plunging breaker.”
16. That wave is nonetheless deadly.
Rogue waves are alternately known as freak waves, monster waves, or killer waves because they occur abruptly in the open ocean, sometimes toppling ocean liners. This particular rogue wave can actually be measured thanks to the three fishing boats (oshiokuri-bune). Cartwright and Nakamura used their known size to determine The Great Wave off Kanagawa is roughly 32 to 39 feet tall.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.