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WHAT KIND OF A WAVE IS HOKUSAI'S GREAT WAVE OFF KANAGAWA ?

Julyan H. E. Cartwright and Hisami Nakamura
Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London
Vol. 63, No. 2 (20 June 2009), pp. 119-135
Published by: Royal Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40647253
Page Count: 17
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WHAT KIND OF A WAVE IS HOKUSAI'S GREAT WAVE OFF KANAGAWA ?
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Abstract

The great wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai is probably the most famous image in Japanese art. It depicts three boats in heavy seas on the point of encountering the eponymous wave, while Mount Fuji is glimpsed in the distance. The print is today often reproduced as the artistic depiction of a tsunami. Did Hokusai really have a tsunami in mind when he composed this work? We examine that hypothesis together with the alternatives, by discussing the image itself and the circumstances surrounding its composition, and by evaluating the wave in terms of the fluid dynamics of breaking waves and in particular of the species termed plunging breakers, of which The great wave is a member, and conclude that it is more probable that Hokusai intended to depict an exceptionally large storm wave. There is a great deal of scientific interest at present in such abnormally high waves, which are often termed freak or rogue waves.

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