The big wave of Kanagawa


Woodcut print by Katsushika Hokusai

Die grosse Welle


hokusai great wave

In the News

In 2023, the Bavarian State Library purchased a print of the "Great Wave of Kanagawa" by Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1849) from a private collector "for a lower seven-figure euro amount."
An exhibition of Japanese woodcut prints is planned for 2025 in Munich. The Japanese collection of the Bavarian State Library includes a total of around 90,000 printed volumes, 100 manuscripts and 900 broadsheets.

hokusai great wave


Title: 冨嶽三十六景   神奈川沖浪裏
Fugaku Sanjūrokkei - Kanagawa oki nami ura
"36 Views of Mount Fuji: Sea wave of Kanagawa from the inner side"

Signature: 北斎改爲一筆
Hokusai aratame itsu pitsu
Hokusai renamed to Itsu painted it

hokusai great wave

Dimensions and number of copies

The original size of the print is 25 × 37 cm. This is almost exactly the dimension of the diploma from Shoden to Yondan. In the photo they are applied to scale on the wall.
A thousand copies were reportedly printed initially. According to experts' estimates, the total number of woodblock prints of the motif rose to around 8,000. Today around 130 are still preserved. The motif was very popular in Japan. The prints were not considered particularly valuable, so the vast majority were soon thrown away or destroyed. Back then, a print cost about as much as a portion of noodles.

hokusai great wave

Location and distance

The scene takes place somewhere in the sea off the coast of Yokohama. The area has since long been called Kanagawa. Mount Fuji lies almost due west. The distance from the sea off Kanagawa to the summit of Mount Fuji is approximately 90 km.
The hills as the crow flies from the sea to Mount Fuji are a maximum of 800 m high. Mount Fuji itself is 3776 m high.
Hokusai is famous for his landscape paintings, which he created using his palette of indigo and Prussian blue imported from Holland. This color was known in Japan at the time as Berlin ai (ベルリン藍).

hokusai great wave

The wave

The waves in this woodblock print are sometimes referred to as tsunami (津波). In the caption they are called Okinami (沖波), big waves off the coast.
However, there are recent scientific publications that speculate that it was a tsunami wave after all.
The scene shows three oshiokuri-bune, fast barges that were used to transport live fish from the Izu and Bōsō peninsulas to markets in Edo Bay. The boats face south, probably towards Sagami Bay, to pick up a load of fish for sale in Edo.
The height of the wave can be estimated using the boats as a reference: the oshiokuri-bune were generally between 12 and 15 meters long. The wave is therefore between 10 and 12 meters high.
The whitecaps, as Hokusai draws them here, are considered an early example of the representation of self-similar structures, so-called fractals, for which Benoît Mandelbrot (1920 - 2010) developed the mathematical theory.