Almost certainly the Buddhist Katsushika Hokusai knew nothing of the Psalms. When he created this woodblock print, Christianity had been banned in Japan for two centuries. The ban remained in force (1615–1868) until after his death. Earlier poets and painters had made waves central to the national imagination—viewed as both a protection against intruders and a danger, discouraging foreign travel. Yet within a few decades, this image from the ‘closed country’ would begin to instruct the Western imagination about Japan. Over the last century at least, Hokusai’s Under the Wave has attained the status of a global icon, a boundary-crossing image capable of communicating with viewers in multiple religious traditions and cultures.
In Israelite and Japanese religious cultures, mountains and the sea are viewed as awesome in the true sense—life-giving and fearsome—and thus evocative of divinity. Although they come from the eastern and western extremes of the Asian continent, respectively, Hokusai’s image and Psalms 42–43 (originally a single psalm) share two elements of their landscapes: mountains and deep waters.
Japanese and Western viewers are likely to read the print differently from one another. For Westerners, reading left to right, the towering wave is first and foremost. Asian viewers, trained to read from the opposite direction, might focus instead on what stands ‘under the wave’ (Hokusai’s own title): Mount Fuji, the sacred volcano, both dangerous and revered.
Refocusing on Fuji as a sign of divinity may yield a better understanding of the watery paradox central to Psalm 42: the psalmist yearns for God’s presence in the midst of troubles that also seem to come from God. God’s ‘waves and billows’ threaten to overwhelm, but still ‘deep calls to deep’ (42:7 own translation), the depths of affliction to the depths of faith. God is present here. A Christian viewer might press further. The three-lobed cloud hovering over Fuji’s peak—could that be a cruciform figure with arms outstretched, a sign of divine presence to those in distress?
Guth, Christine. 2015. Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press)
Terry, Charles S. 1959. Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt. Fuji (Tokyo: Toto Shuppan)
42As a hart longs
for flowing streams,
so longs my soul
for thee, O God.
2My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
3My tears have been my food
day and night,
while men say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
4These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
5Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help 6and my God.
My soul is cast down within me,
therefore I remember thee
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
7Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of thy cataracts;
all thy waves and thy billows
have gone over me.
8By day the Lord commands his steadfast love;
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
9I say to God, my rock:
“Why hast thou forgotten me?
Why go I mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
11Why are you cast down, O my soul,
my help and my God.
43Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people;
from deceitful and unjust men
2For thou art the God in whom I take refuge;
why hast thou cast me off?
because of the oppression of the enemy?
3Oh send out thy light and thy truth;
let them lead me,
let them bring me to thy holy hill
and to thy dwelling!
4Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise thee with the lyre,
O God, my God.