Why the Iconic ‘Great Wave’ Swept the World

For Decades, Katsushika Hokusai's Famous Woodblock Print Has Been Used as an Emblem of Tsunamis, Hurricanes, and Plane Crashes Into the Sea

In the aftermath of the horrific 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku, Japan, a well-known image of a single cresting wave popped up everywhere, from relief fundraising appeals to the work of Japanese artists who adapted it to comment on the disaster. The 1831 woodblock print, “Under the Wave off Kanagawa,” depicts a swell of water that appears to engulf not only the boatmen delivering fresh fish to the city of Edo (known today as Tokyo), but even Mount Fuji.

Since its creation 184 years ago, Katsushika Hokusai’s work, also …