Tamar Avishai at the NYRB:
You will have seen art from the Edo Period—its most recognizable images are the ukiyo-e prints: mass-produced woodblock scenes of popular entertainment and Japanese landscapes, the most world-famous of which is Katushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa from 1829. These prints were ubiquitous, disseminated through the city’s pleasure quarters, and sold, it’s colloquially said, as cheaply as a second helping of noodles. And before Edo Japan opened up to the world and these inexpensive prints were splashed all over Europe, they were bought almost exclusively as souvenirs by a growing Japanese middle class, a pictorial keepsake of insular pride. The Great Wave is itself an amalgam of some of Japan’s most distinctive characteristics, illustrating its relationship with the spiritual anchor of Mount Fuji, and with the sea itself, which is embodied in both the quotidian economics of the fishing industry, and in the Buddhist philosophy of a wave’s impermanence.