Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa Now Appears on Japanese Banknotes

If you’ve lived or trav­eled in Japan, you know full well how much of dai­ly life in that cash-inten­sive soci­ety involves the use of thou­sand-yen bills. Once con­sid­ered the equiv­a­lent of the Amer­i­can ten-spot, the yen’s late­ly hav­ing fall­en to its low­est val­ue in decades means that it’s now worth clos­er to six U.S. dol­lars. This is good news for tourists, and espe­cial­ly so for tourists who appre­ci­ate the wood­block-print art of Hoku­sai, whose famous Great Wave off Kana­gawa adorns the brand new ¥1000 ban­knote. Issued just yes­ter­day by the Bank of Japan, it also bears the image of bac­te­ri­ol­o­gist Kitasato Shibasaburō, who co-dis­cov­ered the infec­tious agent of a bubon­ic plague out­break in 1894.

The last revi­sion of the ¥1000, twen­ty years ago, also fea­tured a bac­te­ri­ol­o­gist: Noguchi Hideyo, who iden­ti­fied syphilis as the cause of pro­gres­sive par­a­lyt­ic dis­ease. Before Noguchi, it bore the image of Nat­sume Sōse­ki, one of the most cel­e­brat­ed writ­ers in the his­to­ry of Japan­ese let­ters.

The Bank of Japan tends to roll out ban­knote designs for each offi­cial era, which begins when­ev­er a new emper­or ascends to the throne; the cur­rent one began in May of 2019, after Emper­or Aki­hi­to stepped down and his son Naruhi­to stepped up. Oth­er his­tor­i­cal fig­ures pic­tured on the cur­ren­cy of this Rei­wa era, as it’s called, include Tsu­da Uni­ver­si­ty founder Tsu­da Umeko and “father of Japan­ese cap­i­tal­ism” Shibu­sawa Eiichi.”

A not just respect­ed but pop­u­lar and com­mer­cial­ly suc­cess­ful artist, Hoku­sai knew a thing or two about cap­i­tal­ism him­self. Yet he also had an uncom­mon eye for the beau­ty of Japan, his dis­tinc­tive per­cep­tions of which have been high­ly influ­en­tial in both East­ern and West­ern art for near­ly two cen­turies now. Japan­ese ban­knotes have pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured images of Mount Fuji, Oga­ta Kōrin’s six-pan­el paint­ing of iris­es, and a scene from the Tale of Gen­ji. But this is the first time any has drawn from ukiyo‑e, the “pic­tures of the float­ing world” of which Hoku­sai was one of sev­er­al mas­ters who worked from the sev­en­teenth through the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. A Great Wave bill is some­thing to cel­e­brate, but giv­en that today hap­pens to be the Fourth of July, let it be said that the pyra­mid with the eye is also pret­ty cool.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to Hokusai’s Great Wave, One of the Most Rec­og­niz­able Art­works in the World

The Evo­lu­tion of Hokusai’s Great Wave: A Study of 113 Known Copies of the Icon­ic Wood­block Print

Watch Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kana­gawa Get Entire­ly Recre­at­ed with 50,000 LEGO Bricks

Hokusai’s Action-Packed Illus­tra­tions of Japan­ese & Chi­nese War­riors (1836)

Alan Tur­ing Will Be Fea­tured on England’s New £50 Ban­knote

‘Pride and Prej­u­dice’ Author Jane Austen Will Appear on the £10 Note

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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