Making waves: Hokusai and the creation of modern Japan

Issue: 159

Ben Windsor

Last summer the British Museum devoted a major retrospective to the ­printmaker and painter Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). He is perhaps Japan’s most influential and internationally renowned artist, viewed by some as the father of modernism.1 These days most of us know him through just one iconic woodcut—The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Yet when Japan was first “opened up” by American warships in the 1850s, Hokusai and Andō Hiroshige were the most high profile representatives of the cultural “Japonisme” that swept the West. Their prints exerted a major influence on the impressionists and their successors, helping impressionism break away from the stifling influence of the French Academies.

So why has Hokusai’s star waned in the intervening years? Why do certain artists get hyped over others, and what shapes their reputations over time, as they fall in and out of favour? Hokusai presents an intriguing case study here, because despite his considerable influence on the evolution of modern art, he has a very low profile in most of the world’s art institutions.

In the wake of the British Museum exhibition, which has provoked a reassessment of his work, I want to take the opportunity to look at what went into the making of this “artist”—both as a human being and as a mythical persona.2

Hokusai lived in a society radically different from our own. He lived his whole life under the strictly hierarchical and isolationist Tokugawa regime. This shogunate, founded in 1603, brought a long period of stability to the archipelago. The Tokugawa clan’s seizure of power drew to a close a century and a half of almost constant conflict between local warlords. But the social and economic pressures that would lead to the regime’s implosion—and the emergence of what would become modern Japan3—were increasingly evident during Hokusai’s lifetime.

He was an interesting character (an unwitting iconoclast, frequently living in poverty despite his success, who changed his name dozens of times)4 living at an interesting time (enforced seclusion from the rest of the world) in an interesting place (Edo, renamed Tokyo in 1868, was larger than London for much of this period, but built of wood and prone to frequent catastrophic fires).

Hokusai’s story also illustrates how supposedly distinct “national cultures” feed off each other and evolve. He was perceived by Western audiences as a quintessentially Japanese artist, yet his style represented a major departure from those roots—he forged something new from the interplay of modern European influences and older East Asian traditions.

There are many other reasons for socialists to appreciate Hokusai—not least his fascination with the everyday lives of working people. This is accompanied by a philosophical outlook that resonates with our own dialectical vision of the world—one that captures both the flux of nature and society and their interconnectedness.

I will return to Hokusai later on, but first I want to look at the factors that shaped his society. No human is an island, and this is doubly true for artists, despite the fantasies about “geniuses” working in splendid isolation in their garrets. There is constant feedback between the creator of a work, their collaborators, their audience, their paymaster—and their environment.

Geology and nature

“Nature” in Hokusai’s Japan tends to have a tempestuous character, often threatening to overwhelm the diminutive humans in its midst.

This reflects the volatile geology of the region. Japan is situated on the Ring of Fire—a series of active volcanoes, volcanic arcs and tectonic plate boundaries that frame the Pacific. Some 81 percent of the world’s largest earthquakes occur in the ring—and nearly 53 percent of tsunamis.5 It is also home to 75 percent of the world’s volcanoes. Over the centuries the combined activity of these violent phenomena have frequently wrought havoc on the Japanese population, killing thousands of people directly, and many more indirectly as they often provoked or aggravated famines.6 The archipelago currently encompasses 108 active volcanoes spread over 6,852 islands (although the largest four make up the bulk of the total land mass). Because so much of the interior of the islands was rendered uninhabitable—or uncultivable—by this rugged terrain, the coastal areas became densely populated.7

The largest of the volcanoes, Mount Fuji, is a central motif in Hokusai’s work, towering over the human civilisation at its base and visible from a great distance. The mountain has long been venerated by Shinto and Buddhist religions, with the first recorded pilgrimage dating back to 600AD. In Hokusai’s time demand for pictures of it soared as the cult of Mount Fuji, and the custom of making pilgrimages there, spread among the burgeoning urban population of Edo.8

Hokusai himself thought of the mountain as a deity. It was also his greatest muse. In his most famous series of prints—“36 Views of Mount Fuji”—it holds sway over the teeming life below, the one constant in the life of the Edo region. It is ever present, “on the horizon, between buildings, through a window—emphasising the relationship between the lair of the gods and the [population of the] shōgun’s city”.9 Hokusai seems to perceive the mountain as the still centre of a world in flux. (He was also devoted to a cult of the North Star, which played a similar role in the skies, particularly for maritime cultures like his own.)10

Japanese society

Over the course of the previous millennium China’s much older civilisation had exerted a major influence on Japan’s development. But in key respects Japan differed from its larger neighbour. It had neither the great canals and irrigation works of China, nor a strongly centralised state. Until around 1600 it had a social and economic system much like that of medieval Europe.11

However, things were about to change fundamentally. Following the extensive civil wars during the 15th and 16th centuries:

The Tokugawa clan succeeded in defeating and subjugating all its rivals. The head of the clan became the shōgun, the real ruler of the country, with the emperor relegated to ceremonial duties… The Tokugawa shōguns were like the absolute monarchs of 18th century Europe… But the end of feudal anarchy allowed agriculture and trade to recover. Farmers, artisans and merchants became relatively more important.12

One method employed to ensure loyalty to the shogunate was the ­Sankin-kōtai—the “alternate residence” decree. From 1642 all lords were required to spend every second year resident in Edo. In the other years, when they returned to their home towns, they were required to leave their wife and their heir behind, essentially as hostages. This decree served another useful purpose. The money spent on maintaining two lavish residences rather than one—and on the annual extravagant processions between them—was a major drain on the lords’ finances that might otherwise be spent on making mischief.13

Hokusai was born and lived most of his life in Edo. A former fishing village, it had been made the capital city in 1603 by the victorious Tokugawa. It was now developing rapidly. As Chris Harman writes:

The concentration of lords and their families in Edo…led to a growing trade in rice to feed them and their retainers, and to a proliferation of craftspeople and traders catering to their needs. Japan’s cities grew to be some of the biggest in the world. The merchant class, although supposedly of very low standing, became increasingly important, and a new urban culture of popular poetry, plays and novels developed, different in many ways from the official culture of the state.14

Neighbourhoods were divided according to social function—merchants, lords, artisans, priests and monks were each assigned their own areas. The shogunate set aside walled areas in the major cities for the establishment of brothels, teahouses and theatres. In these “pleasure districts” it was easier for different classes to mingle, and there was a tendency for money and fashion to outshine the older “virtues”.15

The wealthier classes, languishing in their gilded cages in Edo, increasingly turned their attentions to sensual pleasures and an industry grew up to serve them. Its main focus was the Yoshiwara district, described by one observer as a “walled, moated, glittering island of style and panache”.16 By the 18th century, it was home to an estimated 1,750 (indentured) sex workers.

This area became the subject of a popular new genre of Japanese prints known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world”, which celebrated its hedonistic pursuits. Its main subjects were female “beauties” (often courtesans), Kabuki actors (the stars of popular culture), sumo wrestlers and erotica—plus the more familiar folk tales, historic tableaux, landscapes, flora and fauna. This is the genre that Hokusai would specialise in, one considered vulgar by the ruling literati, and subject to censorship.17

By some measures, Edo briefly became the biggest city in the world by 1720, with an estimated 1.1 million inhabitants.18 But it was prone to disaster. Deadly fires, stoked by high seasonal winds, the wood and paper construction of the buildings, the population density in the slums and an abundance of arsonists, frequently swept the city. During the course of the Tokugawa’s 265-year reign, Edo was struck by 49 major fires. The worst of them hit in 1657, destroying up to 70 percent of the city and killing over 100,000 people. Fires became so much a part of daily life that people would sleep with their clothes and a lantern next to their pillow, to facilitate rapid evacuation.

Epidemics (particularly smallpox and cholera) and famines would also take a heavy toll over the years. But the urban population wasn’t impassive in the face of these disasters. There were some large-scale riots, particularly in response to the hoarding of rice by speculators during periods of famine.19

Living in such a city, the populace were constantly reminded of the destructive power of nature and the ephemerality of life. This was a common theme in Hokusai’s work, but also in the wider culture.

The period of isolation

Three decades into the Tokugawa’s reign, an extraordinary series of laws were enacted. Known as the “Sakoku” (closed country) policy, and beginning in the 1630s, they would severely limit trade—and relations more generally—between Japan and the world beyond its shores.

All ocean-going ships were destroyed and the construction of new ones was forbidden.20 Almost all foreigners were barred from entry and ordinary Japanese people weren’t allowed to leave—under threat of death. Trade was only permitted with Korea, the Dutch East India Company and China. In the case of the last two, contact was limited to the tiny artificial port of Dejima, in Nagasaki.21

The catalyst for Sakoku was a major peasant revolt, the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637-8, in which roughly 40,000 peasants participated. It was eventually crushed, but at great cost to the authorities—including 15,000 casualties on their side. Many of the rebellious peasants had articulated their grievances in ideas adopted from Christianity. The Portuguese missionaries who had been active in the area were accused of inciting the rebellion and expelled from the country. The religion itself was banned.

The Dutch and the British were not considered to be as dangerous, as it was thought they were more able to separate religion and commerce.22 Indeed, the Dutch East India Company helped defeat the peasant rebellion—supplying gunpowder, cannons and a warship. Although this embarrassed the rulers (who were accused of relying on foreigners to suppress their own people) it is no accident that these same merchants were exempted from Sakoku.

Religious challenges to central authority were taken very seriously as they had been common during the civil wars of the 15th and 16th centuries, when they were generally instigated by armed Buddhist monks. The regime was also aware of the colonisation of the Southern Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, brandishing a bible in one hand and a sword in the other. They were keen to avoid a similar fate.

However, the imposition of Sakoku was not just motivated by fear of Christian missionaries.23 It also served other purposes. It was useful as a means for the shogunate to strengthen its own central power at the expense of the local warlords. Many of these lords had used foreign trade to build up their military strength, and continued to represent a serious threat.24 By introducing the strict maritime regulations, and specifying that the vast bulk of foreign trade had to be conducted through Dejima, the regime guaranteed a significant income for itself through taxes and levies—while denying it to potential rivals.25

Although the shogunate’s policies were effective at putting a stop to ­internecine wars among the lords, they certainly didn’t put an end to peasant uprisings:

Rage smouldered perpetually and erupted frequently. By one count there were 2,967 peasant uprisings [usually driven by high taxes and starvation] during the Tokugawa shogunate; by another, 6,889… The worst of them were very violent indeed, so much so that a mere threat was sometimes enough to make a prudent daimyo (feudal lord) back down.26

With time, some of the Sakoku restrictions were loosened. For example, as the 18th century progressed, more access to Western books was permitted, and the knowledge in them was increasingly appreciated. Educated Japanese kept abreast of foreign technology during this period by studying texts in the Dutch language. This developed into a blossoming field in the late 1700s known as Rangaku (Dutch studies).

The opening

The ending of Sakoku—what became known as the “opening”—occurred shortly after Hokusai’s death. But it is relevant to the history of his art, as it shaped the way his work was received by the rest of the world.

The Tokugawan political framework had proved remarkably resilient. But over the centuries a variety of social and economic forces were slowly developing which were to render it untenable. The material foundation of the old hierarchies was being eroded as the merchant class and the bankers became more and more powerful. However, the most pressing force for change came from without.

Competition between the great imperial powers to carve up the world meant they were increasingly eager to lay their hands on Japan. Although they were initially repelled—often violently—their presence in the surrounding seas became more frequent with the growth of maritime trade and a booming whaling industry. The increased sightings—and incursions—of foreign ships, provoked a debate among the ruling class about how to deal with the threat to Japan’s sovereignty.

The question was posed most sharply by the fate of China. The civilisation that Japan had revered for centuries was now humiliated by Western armies. Japan’s leaders looked at the miserable outcome of the Opium Wars, and decided they would have to transform their own country if they wanted to avoid a similar trajectory.

Things reached a head in 1853 when Commodore Perry of the US Navy arrived with a fleet of warships, and an ultimatum: open Japan to foreign trade on our terms, or we’ll crush you. He gave them a year to think it over—but came back early, as the Russians, French and British were all sniffing around, seeking to impose their own treaties. The shogunate felt unable to resist. Torn by fierce arguments over how to proceed, they finally opted to make concessions to a more powerful enemy now, in order to build up their strength for the future.

But this momentous decision spelt the end for the Tokugawa shogunate. The tensions that had mounted during their long reign finally erupted, and the whole ruling layer was thrown into turmoil. The years of chaos that followed would eventually result in a revolution from above—the “Meiji Restoration” of the late 1860s. The restoration was led by two great feudal lords and supported by sections of the Samurai class. They understood that they would have to embrace key elements of capitalism if they were to maintain anything of their beloved past.

The newly formed nation-state would show its strength just 27 years later, when it launched a war of its own against China. The victim of foreign intervention was quick to join the ranks of the oppressors.27

The invention of “Japanese” culture

Almost a century before the creation of that Japanese state, people high up in the shogunate began to develop an embryonic national culture, a project closely bound up with an attempt to define the borders of the diffuse archipelago. The catalyst was perceived threats from foreign powers, combined with domestic unrest.

In the early years of the Tokugawa’s reign, Japan’s larger neighbours had not represented a threat (the Korean kingdom was moribund and the Chinese dynasty too absorbed in its own affairs). One consequence of this was that the cultural and political borders of “Japan” were vague and porous.28 But from the 1770s onwards, new and more formidable threats began to encroach upon Japan’s indistinct shores. As the ships of the imperial powers were sighted more frequently, the shōgun’s reforming chief minister, Matsudaira Sadanobu, decided to act. He organised a team to carry out a comprehensive study of the newly exposed coastline. It included military men, surveyors and artists. One outcome would be the strengthening of coastal defences, particularly around Edo. But the artists also came to serve a very useful function, and their task would not be limited to depictions of the coast.29

Sadanobu had a flair for propaganda. He hoped to restore waning shogunal authority through the construction of a “unifying cultural order”.30 He wanted to encourage the dispersed and fragmented parts of the archipelago to think of themselves as an entity with a shared history—facing a common external threat.31 Archivists and artists were dispatched thoughout the shogunate, to catalogue and copy rare manuscripts and paintings. But his policies also had a strong moral aspect. He was concerned about what he saw as the degenerate tastes of the Japanese merchant class (and the listless Samurai) in the cities—typified by the ukiyo-e, especially the erotic genre of Shunga. To Sadanobu these predilections appeared to be a sign of imminent moral collapse.32

He introduced a raft of far-reaching sumptuary laws, which were bitterly resented by many of his subjects, especially the upwardly mobile ones. Among other things, these forbade the construction of fancy houses and much of the extravagant clothing favoured by wealthy city dwellers. They also tried to inculcate an (outwardly) modest bureaucratic ethos—enforced by compulsory examinations.33 It was a vain attempt to keep the upstart merchants in their place, and to reinforce the authority of the aristocracy.

The laws also sought to police the musical and pictoral tastes of the cities. They clamped down on the hedonism of the floating world culture, and encouraged more virtuous genres. The new aesthetic also “stressed pictures of the present and an accurate style of representation”.34 For example, there were objections to images of birds landing on branches too frail to support their weight. This emphasis on a precise and scientific approach to nature would play to Hokusai’s strengths. Although, like his peers, he was obliged to shift his focus and his style by the laws, he seemed to relish the challenge.

Hokusai’s artistic development

Born in Edo in a working class district, Hokusai was adopted into an artisan family. His new father was a respected craftsperson, making mirrors for the shōguns and their coterie. His birth mother may have been a courtesan.

Aged 12, he began work in a lending library. At 14, he became an apprentice to a woodblock engraver. At 18, he took up a post in the studio of the well known ukiyo-e artist, Katsukawa Shunshō. It was here that he would really lay the basis for his craft. Artists like Shunshō worked as part of a team—with publishers, engravers and printmakers. Their work was generally aimed at a mass market, rather than individual wealthy patrons. The publisher was usually the financer, promoter and distributor. They would commission a work based on which courtesan or actor they felt was most popular in that moment. The artist would carefully draw it out, the engravers would use this sketch to create a woodblock—and finally the printers would ink and press the woodblocks onto hand-made paper. Each one of these stages required great skill, and the end product would suffer if they didn’t complement each other. Hokusai was well placed to understand the whole process because of his apprenticeship as an engraver (and a library assistant).

Technology often plays a key role in artistic innovation. Indeed, many of the artistic materials that we take for granted have only become available in recent centuries.35 But Hokusai had the good fortune to be born just as a revolutionary change was transforming the use of woodblock prints. The basic method had been in use since the 8th century in Japan, chiefly for the dissemination of texts. The earliest prints had been one colour (usually black) taken from a single block. Sometimes they were then coloured by hand. However, the process was expensive. But a technique using multiple colour woodblocks was perfected in 1765.36 As a result of this new breakthrough, it finally became cheap and easy to produce single-sheet prints in a range of colours.37 With time, their prices became so low that ordinary workers could afford them. Hokusai’s later prints cost about the same as two bowls of noodles.38

The first prints under his own name, a series depicting Kabuki actors, were published in 1779. He continued to work in Shunshō’s studio until shortly after his master died, in 1793. At this time a sharp break occurred. Following Shunshō’s death, Hokusai began exploring other styles of art, including French and Dutch engravings (these cheap prints often came as wrapping for goods from the West).39 He was soon expelled from the studio, and the associated art school, by Shunshō’s chief disciple, Shunkō.

Hokusai’s expulsion from the studio may have been painful, but it also spurred him on. He later said: “What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunkō’s hands”.40 He also changed the principle subjects of his prints at this time, moving away from the images of courtesans and actors and becoming increasingly focused on landscapes, and on the daily life of people from various social strata. The success of these new subjects was a breakthrough, both for Hokusai and for ukiyo-e itself.41

His artistic practice was grounded in a close scientific study of the form of things, and not just the usual flora and fauna. His sketchbooks show his interest in all subjects—including ordinary people. One of the most striking aspects of Hokusai’s later landscapes is that they are populated by workers (a rare thing in the Western tradition at that time). For example, the boats threatened by the terrifying Great Wave are crewed by diminutive oarsmen, hurrying to deliver fresh fish to markets in Edo bay.

Hokusai would become increasingly famous over the next 15 years, thanks both to his artistic skill and his talent for self-promotion. Among other activities, he started to mix with wealthy patrons at poetry clubs, and they paid him to depict their poetry readings in limited edition prints, known as Surimono. With a cultured and wealthy audience, these prints were often more experimental than his work for a mass market, and he could also afford to employ more extravagant printing techniques.

He was restless and artistically ambitious, and eager to move on to new challenges. In the early 19th century, illustrated adventure stories became very popular. For publishers, they were an obvious way to exploit the new possibilities of colour printing. Hokusai decided to work on them, and by this point he had developed such prestige that he could pick and choose which authors he collaborated with.

In his 50s, motivated in part by money troubles, he published various erotic prints, art manuals and several volumes of what became known as the Hokusai Manga (sketches).42 The latter were a convenient way to make money, but also to attract more students (he took on about 300 during the course of his career). The Manga were an immediate success. They would also become very popular abroad decades later, as part of the wave of Japonisme, as their candid depiction of everyday life offered valuable insights into this unknown world.

What marked Hokusai out from many of his contemporaries was his close observation of life, his driving ambition and his openness to new influences. These were all qualities likely to appeal to the nascent bourgeois, even if they were imprisoned in a gilded cage.

Hokusai was prolific, producing over 30,000 pieces in his lifetime. He worked with a passion into his old age, claiming: “All I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with… When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvellous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before”.

His confidence that his craft would improve as he aged had some solid basis. The key turning point in his practice came in 1824, when he was in his early 60s. He received a major commission from Dutch merchants of the East India Company. They asked him for a series of prints showing scenes of everyday life on the mysterious archipelago, and supplied him with a new kind of paper which allowed finer detail.

They may have hoped for something typically “Japanese”. Instead the commission acted as a catalyst for Hokusai to integrate his new European influences with ancient East Asian traditions, and forge the style that would make his reputation around the world. His successful completion of the commission, which he worked on for two years, emboldened him to experiment further.

Most Japanese art of the time was created in a very flat manner. It paid more attention to the symbolism and composition of the subject matter, than to mass or to the illusion of space.43 But Hokusai now introduced a modern European perspective—a sense of spatial recession within the picture—yet abstracted his designs and colours in ways that no artist from Europe could have imagined. There was also a new attention to light and shade. Some images have a single light source casting shadows, which was revolutionary in the Japanese tradition.

Unlike many earlier European landscapes, those of Hokusai pulse with energy, movement and interconnectivity. Look at the spray from the Great Wave falling like snow on Mount Fuji. It is playful, but it also expresses his conception of the natural world. It reflects Japanese Buddhist belief that all phenomena, animate and inanimate, have a spirit and are interconnected.44

He was fascinated by nature in flux—particularly in water, which he obsessed over, and was surrounded by.45 He had grown up in a major port city, and lived beside the Sumida river—a hub for transport (and parties on sumptuous barges)—for much of his life. Above all, Hokusai was interested in the relationship between the natural world, the human world and the spiritual world. This was reflected in one of the myths he cultivated about himself. He told a story about how he was struck by lightning one day while walking home from the temple. The blow from above was so powerful it threw him into a rice field. He claimed that from that moment on, he flourished as an artist—it was a divine spark in all but name.

In his late 60s, he was hit by a series of crises—he had a minor stroke, his second wife died in 1828, and he was troubled by his grandson, who ran up huge gambling debts. He was forever paying off these debts—eventually losing his own home because of them.46 At that point, he hid out in a temple. But a commission from the publisher Nishimuraya, for the print series “36 Views of Mount Fuji”, restored his fortunes.47

Early designs for the “36 Views”, in Hokusai’s bold new style, were also striking for their use of imported Prussian blue, a synthetic pigment relatively new to Japan.48 It was a significant innovation because it was the first affordable blue that was both stable and relatively lightfast. It replaced the prohibitively expensive ultramarine (a pigment derived from the gemstone lapis lazuli). This new colour was particularly important for Hokusai, given his fascination with water. The series as a whole sold so well that the 36 views quickly became 46.49 Thereafter, landscape became a major new genre in Japanese prints. Seeking to capitalise on this success, publishers commissioned Hokusai to produce other variations on the theme—including landscapes based around waterfalls, bridges and fishing. These would soon be followed by “100 views of Mount Fuji” which included some very playful compositions (they seem to prefigure photography, which was then in its infancy).

These prints differed in key aspects from the British landscape genre, which had only arisen a few decades earlier, in the mid 18th century. In Britain the key subtext was often the question of ownership of the beautiful vistas on display. Perhaps it is not surprising, as the bucolic scenes in the paintings frequently belonged to the same rich patrons who had commissioned the pictures.50 However, the emerging Japanese landscape genre within ukiyo-e was more focused on the lived relationship with nature—a reflection of the relatively lowly status of its audience, who experienced nature as an elemental force permeating their lives, rather than as something they might think of possessing.

The Japanese genre also diverged from the British one in another significant way—it leant more heavily on imagination, composition and atmosphere than the observance of a specific place.51 This tension has always been present in landscape traditions—for instance vying between notions of the “picturesque”, the “sublime” and the “topographical”.52 It may be no accident that the ­topographical inclination is often strongest where the emphasis is on proprietorship. The owner is keen to have every foot of their vista surveyed and recorded (or glorified)—rather like the minister Sadanobu preparing his naval defences.

Hokusai fell prey to Edo’s notorious combustibility a few years later, in 1839. His house and studio burnt to the ground, and he was forced to flee naked into the street. “All his archive and all his belongings were destroyed. [It shook him up badly and] from that time on, he did no more drawings or prints—only paintings”.53

His daughter O-Ei (also an artist) moved in to his new home with him, to look after the old man. But they were only just scraping by. A slump in the publishing industry, combined with a growing perception of his style as old-fashioned, meant the commissions were drying up. But he remained capable and committed to the end, despite his declining health. Among other projects he illustrated a handbook for carpenters, a life of the Buddha and painted murals for temples.54 He died in 1849, after a short illness. He was 90.

Hokusai’s reception in the West

During the long years of isolation, a huge thirst had grown up in the outside world for Japan’s hidden treasures—and not just the economic ones. Europe’s monarchs typified this, with their craving for Japanese porcelain and lacquerware, which became a desirable luxury precisely because of its rarity.55

In the very rare cases where a stray Japanese subject found themselves washed up abroad (the large majority were fishermen, blown out of coastal waters, then set adrift for months in their unseaworthy vessels) they were seized upon by foreign powers for the rare insights it was hoped they could offer into the life and culture of the islands.56 Many of these castaways were then compelled to teach Japanese to anyone keen to lay their hands on the imagined riches of the shogunate. If these students ever had a chance to use their newly acquired language—learnt from a poor, uneducated worker from the provinces—with a member of Japan’s ruling classes, they were likely to find it didn’t achieve the required effect!

But once Japan was finally prised open by imperial gunboats, a flood of Japanese goods—and culture—were unleashed on the world. Alongside the orientalist excitement57 over such exotic phenomena as geisha and samurai, there was delight at the discovery of more than two centuries’ worth of cultural production.

Many artists and craftspeople, especially in France, were quick to recognise the importance of what they saw. Just as Hokusai was inspired by earlier European artists, he would now open the eyes of Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Gustav Klimt, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and many of their contemporaries. Some of the first outlets for the prints weren’t galleries but tea warehouses, curiosity shops and generic “Asian” stores, like La Porte Chinoise.58 This reflected their low status, but also their accessibility.59

The ukiyo-e prints had a particularly strong impact, arriving just as many Western artists were seeking new ways to depict the world, and break from the Renaissance tradition. They were excited by the limited but vibrant palette, the flat planes of colour, the bold asymmetrical compositions, the unusual points of view, the dramatic foreshortenings and the elegant but simple outlines. The subject matter also influenced them—the idea that the everyday activities of peasants and workers were an area of legitimate concern.60

Perhaps more than any other artist, van Gogh was enraptured. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: “I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity of everything in their work. It is never dull and it never seems to be done in too much of a hurry. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure in a few sure strokes as if it were as easy as doing up your waistcoat”.61 Earlier that year he wrote “all my work is based to some extent on Japanese art”.62

It is an intriguing irony—given the licentious history of the megacity Edo in general and ukiyo-e in particular—that two of the things that most enchanted many impressionists and post-impressionists was the idea that they represented a world more in touch with “nature” and (partially as a result) with purer morals.63 In van Gogh’s words:

Isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?…we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.64

In the Japoniste imagination, the archipelago was often seen as: ­“preserved in amber—unchanged over its two and a half centuries of isolation… prelapsarian idyll which still retained the beauty and the purity that industrialisation had blasted from European society”.65 And yet, despite everything that may have been lost in translation, or distorted by orientalism, the opening of Japan to the outside world was a pivotal moment in modern culture—and one that continues to resonate today.

This is a story about the fluidity and the interplay of cultures across the arbitrary borders imposed by our rulers.66 It is a story driven in part by commerce, but also by the intense curiosity of people—not least practitioners of arts and crafts—about what their peers are doing elsewhere.

Some argue that the wave of Japonisme (especially the emphasis on the flattened and decorative surface) laid the foundations of modern art, and that its influence has subsequently been minimised because of geopolitical factors.67 Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones writes:

The debt has been downplayed by modern art historians. As western culture became less enamoured of Japan—it may be significant that New York’s MoMA was shaping modernism’s story in the era of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima—the woodblock prints came to be seen as mere “raw material” for modern art, even as “primitive” artefacts that simply served to unleash a greater Western creativity.68

It is interesting to contrast the reception of art from Japan with that from Africa, which was to excite the next generation of European artists. It is hard to escape the impression that the circumstances of its acquisition—acquired not just at gunpoint, but over the corpses of its creators and owners—affected its perception and subsequent influence in the West. Its creators were seen as “primitives”—objects of curiosity, but not proper human beings, and not thought to be in a relationship of equals with the typical Western viewer.

By this point popular perceptions of Japan had changed significantly. Its ­convincing victory in the 1905 war against Russia stunned many Western observers. Following on from its defeat of China ten years before, it had clearly become an imperial power to reckon with. Now that it represented a genuine threat to other world powers, it became harder to imagine Japan as a fairy tale land in communion with nature. Western artists increasingly turned to Africa in their search for inspiration from a supposedly more innocent pre-industrial era.69

Orientalism, looting and the British Museum

The reputation of every artist depends on many factors not directly related to the qualities of their work. Some of the most celebrated artists of their time are subsequently forgotten about—while others enjoy widespread renown only after their death. In Hokusai’s case, his reputation abroad rocketed a few years after his passing. During his lifetime he became very popular in Japan, but was little known beyond its confines. Yet soon after the “opening” he became a key element of how Japan was imagined—especially in Europe.

The British Museum is a slightly unusual venue for the Hokusai retrospective because of its status as a museum rather than a gallery. Although this may in part reflect a degree of orientalism—and a choice to view Hokusai through the prism of ethnography and craft rather than that of art history—it also reflects a quirk in the development of British institutions. The museum seems to have been assigned a role as a collector of prints and drawings, rather than the apparently more logical choice of the National Gallery. (So, for example, the museum had a major exhibition of the German printmaker and painter Albrecht Dürer in 2002). Perhaps the gallery has evolved into a repository of the unique art object,70 and cares little for the mass-produced (prints) or the preparatory (sketches).

Britain’s imperial history has shaped the British Museum more than any other factor. Whereas in earlier periods, war booty would have mostly found its way into private homes and state treasuries, the 1800s saw an increasing tendency to gather it together in prestigious national museums—paradoxically as evidence of the “civilising mission” of colonial exploits.

The museum acquired their first Hokusai print very early, just one year after the opening of Japan. And they didn’t steal it; they bought it. This was a telling reflection of the different kind of relationship that the imperial powers would have with Japan.71

These days the British Museum is the most popular tourist attraction in Britain.72 While in many ways these institutions are making serious attempts to address their imperial pasts, they are also keen to keep a hold of their most prestigious loot. It is a strange irony that roughly half the museum’s visitors are foreign tourists, drawn to London to admire our cultural treasures—large parts of which have been stolen from their homelands.

The role of the market

How has the art market shaped Hokusai’s reception over the years? The fate of an artist’s work—and their reputation—is closely linked to their profitability. That seems to be increasingly true today, as the world’s super-rich lavish more of their attention (and wealth) on speculation on the art market. In a related development, governments wedded to austerity like to declare they can no longer afford to fund public galleries and museums, and suggest that the institutions should seek to make up the difference with the donations of philanthropists. The activities of these individuals are not a million miles away from the late medieval practice of buying indulgences from the Catholic church. Only on this occasion they are not seeking to save themselves from damnation in the next world, but merely to burnish their reputations in this one by throwing vast amounts of cash at high culture.73

It is revealing that the most hyped contemporary artists, whose works command the highest prices include the likes of Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor, Brice Marden and Christopher Wool. They are cherished because, along with a degree of technical skill and imagination, they have figured out how to play the market’s game, and have few qualms about it. For the most part their work appears to say very little about anything, let alone about the world we live in. But that is what their key audience, the “ultra high-net-worth individuals”, seem to desire—inoffensive luxury objects that can either serve as ostentatious décor, or be stashed away in a tax-free vault, accruing value.74

How does Hokusai fit into this picture? It’s not easy to make massive profits from his work, because for most of his life he didn’t create unique art objects. Instead, along with his colleagues, he mass produced prints. It is estimated that about 8,000 copies were made of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. In an art world obsessed with the cult of the one-off, this is a serious problem. Another obstacle to his profitability is that it’s rather hard for the establishment critics to fit him into their template of the romantic lone “genius” when his working methods were so obviously collaborative, especially in the second half of his life, when his daughter O-Ei seems to have helped him draw many designs.75

The world of the art market is so entwined with those of the museums and galleries that if high prices cannot be had for an artist’s output on the market, then their work will struggle to attract the kind of attention—and space and investment—that it merits in these modern day secular temples.

Van Gogh joked about this ridiculous situation in a letter to his brother, the art dealer Theo: “Supposing one were to say to a serious collector of Japanese art… ‘Sir, I cannot help finding these five-sous Japanese prints admirable’. It’s more than likely that that person would be a bit shocked and would pity my ignorance and my bad taste”.76

The Great Wave does appear at auction from time to time. For example, a “good impression” but “faded, soiled, stained and rubbed” made £26,896 at Bonhams, New York in September 2012. More recently one came up for auction at Sotheby’s in June 2017. The reserve price for this, his most famous work, was just £39,000. It sold for £369,000—a drop in the ocean compared to the prices paid for the most iconic works of other celebrity artists. But perhaps it says something about the power of an exhibition at a major institution like the British Museum that it boosts the market value of an artist by almost tenfold.

To be fair to the speculators, there is a genuine problem with these prints, which does detract from their value. They weren’t built to last. They were only ever meant to be ephemeral, and the inks are slowly fading. Most of them are a pale shadow of their former selves and have to be viewed sparingly, in darkened rooms. However, they are lasting better than many of Damien Hirst’s obscenely overpriced pieces. His pickled shark didn’t even last two decades—less than it would have done if left unmolested in the wild.77

Perhaps it is fitting that Hokusai’s prints are relatively transient. He lived in and gave voice to a civilisation—the ukiyo—the “floating world” of Edo—that glorified fleeting pleasures. The term ukiyo had two different flavours in that epoch. Both implied a sense of transience. But for the declining aristocratic classes, who felt they were living through the end times, it had the sense of a “sorrowful world” full of worry and grief. Whereas among the increasingly wealthy merchants of the city, despite their bondage, it acquired a sense less tinged with melancholy and more with hedonism.78 For Hokusai and many of his contemporaries, steeped both in the ideas of Buddhism79 and the world of ukiyo, flux seemed to be the natural way of things. A curious paradox, given the longevity—and apparent stability—of the Tokugawa shōguns and their regime, towering over Edo like a mountain deity.

Some of the most subversive ideas of modern art—above all the modern sensibility itself, the feeling, as their near contemporary Karl Marx put it, that “all that is solid melts into air”—find a kindred spirit,80 and perhaps a significant part of their origins, in the humble prints churned out by Hokusai and his colleagues two centuries ago.

Ben Windsor has worked as a graphic designer for the Socialist Workers Party since 2004. He is also an activist with the SWP in south London.


1 Farago, 2015; Jones, 2015. Many thanks to Siobhan Brown, Noel Halifax and Dave Randall for their comments and suggestions on this article in draft.

2 I use the terms “art” and “artist” as a convenient shorthand here. However, they are problematic. Most cultures for most of history would not have recognised “art” as a separate sphere of activity as we now do. For example, under feudalism there would instead have been craft products, of varying degrees of accomplishment. Our term for the greatest achievement of an “artist”—their “masterpiece”—originally referred to the work created by an apprentice to prove they had reached the required standard of the local guild of master craftsmen.

3 Japan didn’t exist as a nation state until the late 19th century, but for the sake of simplicity I will refer to the archipelago as “Japan” in this article. It would perhaps be more accurate to refer to “the Japanese states”.

4 He gave away the name “Hokusai” in his 50th year, after being criticised for his design for a theatre billboard. But it was the name he was most known by, so his publishers continued to use it—Solomon, 1999, p87.

6 Bressan, 2011.

7 An orientation on the sea was further necessitated by the poor state of the road network. In winter many roads were impassable so those that needed to travel longer distances would use small boats—Dash, 2010.

8 Shūji, 2012.

9 Taylor, 2013.

10 Devotees of Zen Buddhism believed that by “identifying oneself with the cosmos, one rose above the vicissitudes of life, becoming like a rock in a stormy sea of troubles”. Identification with Mount Fuji followed neatly on from this—Siegel, 1986, p207

11 Harman, 1999, p365.

12 Faulkner, 2013.

13 A similar tactic was employed in this period by Louis XIV, King of France, to control his nobility.

14 Harman, 1999, p366.

15 Metropolitan Museum of Art (Department of Asian Art), 2004.

16 William Lindsay, quoted in Grünenberg, 2009.

17 Farago, 2015.

18 Bejing was its main competitor, and soon outgrew it. London didn’t hold the title until 1825. See Morris, 2010.

19 For example, famine and the eruption of Mount Asama provoked a series of riots in Edo during the Tenmei period (1781-9). The eruption itself, in 1783, killed more than 20,000 people, but it also aggravated the famine, rendering the surrounding farmland uncultivable for years. Other fatalities from famines include a million dead in 1732 (out of a population of 26 million), 200,000 in 1775 and several hundred thousand in the 1780s.

20 For a fascinating account of the consequences of this policy for sailors see Dash, 2010.

21 The Dutch East India Company went bankrupt in 1798. The Dutch state then took over responsibility for this vital trading post.

22 The British Empire came relatively late to the missionary game, showing little interest in converting their colonised subjects until the second half of the 18th century.

23 In a quirk of fate, the most influential Marxist historian of modern Japan, E H Norman, was the child of a Canadian Methodist missionary based in Nagano province in the early 20th century.

24 Hellyer, 2009.

25 Foreign trade in this period actually flourished, despite the tight controls.

26 Hoffman, 2013.

27 Harman, 1999, p367.

28 Sayle, 2001.

29 Sayle, 2001.

30 Sayle, 2001.

31 With the creation of the Japanese state in the late 19th century, this process would be taken much further. For example, there was an abrupt transformation in the way the inhabitants of the more remote islands were treated. Previously, the ruling class had emphasised the difference between their culture and that of these lowly creatures. They had been forbidden to dress like the Tokugawa, or to adopt their customs. But with the rise of Meiji nationalism, they were suddenly embraced as proto-Japanese, regarded as “ancient types of the same race as the Meiji oligarchs themselves”—Anderson, 2001.

32 Censorship of prints on sale to the public was intermittent, and usually prompted by fear of social unrest. Violators could be harshly punished, even imprisoned. However, the prints aimed at (more affluent) private buyers—of Shunga and Surimono—did not require the censors’ approval. See Chiappa, 2012, and Strange, 1983.

33 Sadanobu’s ambitious policies would have a lasting impact on Japanese culture and identity, but some of them would quickly fall by the wayside. The attack on lax morals was one of the first victims—the 11th shōgun, Tokugawa Ienari, who removed Sadanobu from office in 1793, ushered in a period of extravagant luxury, “known for its financial laxity, graft and corruption”—See Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998.

34 Sayle, 2001.

35 For example, pencils were first invented in the early 16th century. Their creation was prompted by the discovery of a very large and pure deposit of graphite in Cumbria. The British state seized control of the mine, as they recognised that graphite was excellent for lining the moulds of cannonballs. This meant its use in pencils was illicit and it had to be smuggled out for the purpose. Likewise, tubes of paint (a vital tool for the impressionists, and kindred spirits, as it made painting outside much easier) were first produced in 1841. They replaced pig bladders and glass syringes!

36 Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016.

37 Metropolitan Museum of Art (Department of Asian Art), 2004.

38 British Museum, 2017.

39 It seems likely that news of the French Revolution reached the more attentive ears in Edo during this period—and rekindled an interest in exciting new developments in the outside world.

40 Nagata, 1999.

41 Weston, 1999, p117.

42 Nagata, 1999.

43 See “Hokosai Techniques” by Jagg Xaxx—

44 British Museum, 2017.

45 He seemed to embrace flux in his own life. Besides the name changes and the artistic experimentation, he is said to have lived at 93 different residences. Sometimes the cause was poverty—and the desire to avoid creditors. But another common cause was an aversion to cleaning! When the dirt and disorder became too much, he simply moved on to another place. At the root of this transience was an indifference to worldly matters. He was obsessed with his craft, to the exclusion of almost everything else—Solomon, 1999, p87.

46 He often lived in poverty, despite his popularity. The publishers didn’t generally pay a great deal to artists. But this was compounded by his inability to handle money.

47 British Museum, 2017.

48 British Museum, 2017.

49 The most popular print from this series in Japan itself was Red Fuji. The Japanese didn’t just want Fuji from a distance—they wanted it close up and glorious. It was becoming a key emblem in the developing national identity.

50 However, English landscape painting took a significant turn during the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath when—particularly through the works of J M W Turner and John Constable—it increasingly became a way of developing an image of an idealised “England”, in contradistinction to the old enemy across the channel. Ironically, Constable was initially far more celebrated in France than in his home country. He was even offered a medal by the French king, Charles X, but declined to pick it up.

51 Michener, 1959.

52 Prodger, 2012.

53 See the BBC4 documentary: “Hokusai: Old Man Crazy to Paint” (28 June 2017).

54 Solomon, 1999, p90.

55 Lambourne, 2007, p16.

56 Dash, 2010.

57 The Western notion of “Japan” tended to emphasise two aspects: “the country could be characterised either in terms of its aesthetic, elegant qualities, or through the martial culture”—Wagenaar, 2016, p48.

58 Weisberg and others, 1977, p3.

59 They were so cheap, they were often used as wrapping paper for other, fragile, goods travelling across the ocean—a fate they shared with the European etchings that had influenced Hokusai years previously—Seiferle, 2018.

60 Seiferle, 2018.

61 Van Gogh, 1888a.

62 Van Gogh, 1888b.

63 There were some exceptions. Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, seemed most taken by the prints of louche life in urban Edo, whereas Degas was heavily influenced by Hokusai’s manga and his renderings of the human form—Farago, 2015.

64 Van Gogh, 1888a.

65 Farago, 2015.

66 Some bizarre attempts were made to reinscribe these borders. An immensely popular set of porcelain was created by the French printer Félix Henri Bracquemond as a loving tribute to ukiyo-e. But critics praised it as a fine example of French artistic sensibility!—Seiferle, 2018.

67 To get a sense of the strikingly modern feel of ukiyo-e, it is instructive to contrast a print like The Great Wave with another iconic image of maritime art—Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, which was painted about 15 years earlier, but seems to belong to another epoch entirely.

68 Jones, 2015. This is the same Jonathan Jones who wrote a couple of appalling (and absurd) articles attacking Jeremy Corbyn when the Guardian’s Corbynophobia was at its height. But he does have some interesting ideas about art.

69 Farago, 2015.

70 For more on this see Benjamin, 1936.

71 It’s also true that in Hokusai’s case, looting was rarely necessary—as his designs would usually have large print runs, and were sold cheaply.

72 The National Gallery is second, and the Natural History Museum the third.

73 The man with the deepest pockets is currently Donald Trump donor Len Blavatnik. Knighted in 2017 for “services to philanthropy”, this oligarch showered the Tate Modern with such vast sums that they renamed their enormous extension (the Switch House) in his honour—Ruddick, 2017.

74 Gompertz, 2016.

75 Cripps, 2010.

76 Van Gogh, 1888a.

77 Reynolds, 2006.

78 Mair, 2016.

79 When imported into Japan from China in the 6th century, Buddhism adopted much of the local Shinto cult of nature. Buddhism’s own roots as a largely materialist philosophy lay among the merchants, financiers and artisans of India’s cities—Siegel, 1986, pp206 and 185.

80 Jones, 2015.


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