What are the three ships depicted in the Great Wave?

One of Katsushika Hokusai‘s most famous prints, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” from “Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji,” depicts three ships being tossed about by large waves. This part of the work emphasizes the smallness of helpless people in the face of nature, but what are the purpose of the ships they are on?

Geat Off Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai

High-speed boat "Oshiokuri-bune"

The general theory is that these ships were “Oshiokuri-bune”. A Oshiokuri-bune is a type of Japanese boat used in Japan during the Edo period. It is a small high-speed boat that can be used for both sailing and rowing, and was used to transport fresh fish caught in the Edo Bay area to Edo. The ship can also be seen in “Choshi, Soshu” from “Ocean of Wisdom“.

"Choshi, Soshu", from "Oceans of Wisdom"

The meaning that Hokusai put into ships and waves

Among the fish that took advantage of its speed to be transported, bonito was particularly looked forward to by the common people of Edo at the time. Jishohei Nagatsu, a science journalist specializing in fish ecology, explains, “When they saw these boats that could be operated by human power under any conditions, they immediately thought of the first bonito.” Bonito caught between April and June is called “first bonito,” and has long been loved as one of the seasonal ingredients of spring.

Where were they going from where?

Many experts believe that it was a push ship that hurried fresh fish from Izu and Boso to Edo. More specifically, they are said to have been ships that traveled back and forth from Kisarazu and Tateyama to Edo. This work depicts ships that unloads fish in Edo and are on its way to the guardhouse in Uraga to submit a certificate of unloading to a registered fish wholesaler.

Other theories

The most common opinion is that the three ships are Oshiokuri-bune boats, but there are other theories. Hokusai drew these three boats with in mind the small high-speed boats with eight bows, which were well known to everyone in Edo at the time, and which transloaded fish from push boats around Tsukuda Island and sent them quickly to the fish markets in Nihonbashi. Some say that it was a ship that carried travelers on a pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji, carrying around 30 passengers in total.
A slightly more bizarre idea is that the Great Wave is a picture of townspeople enjoying surfing, and that they are not bowing down to the threat of nature.

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