The Great Wave

Author: Janet McKnight


About the image

Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: JP1847
Title: In the Hollow of a Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa (from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji) (referred to as The Great Wave)
Creator: Katsushika Hokusai
Date: c.1830-32
Medium: Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper

A classic image of the power of the sea, Hokusai’s The Great Wave shows a dwarfed Mount Fuji in the distance and a colossal wave cresting over three fishermen’s boats. The wave will surely sink them. Or will it? Perhaps the fisherman are riding the wave to their destination, conquering the ocean’s forces to speed their journey. This color print from the original woodblock is one of thousands produced during the nineteenth century as Japan opened to foreign trade.

This image has become my muse in thinking about law, development, and the concept of stability in post-conflict societies. A society in transition is often seen as being in a process of moving from one condition to another – from violence to peace, lawless to lawful, unstable to stable. This transition can consist of various waves of development: rule of law with revamped constitutions and the building of justice infrastructure, reform of political institutions, foreign direct investment or aid from international financial organisations, and transitional justice in the form of criminal law, local tribunals, and truth commissions. How do these waves interact or conflict as they ride the current of post-conflict transition? What happens when the waves hit the shore, if ever?

Like a wave, development in post-conflict societies often builds up and crescendos amid expectations that it will lead to peace and ‘stability’. A play on meisho-e (depiction of a famous place), The Great Wave puts the destination – the stable Mount Fuji – into perspective by deemphasising the focus on permanence amid perpetual flux. The image warps the observer’s conception of what is moving, what is stable, and what impedes or advances the journey. If development waves ever break upon the shore, perhaps stability is not suddenly created but has been in the picture all along. Post-conflict development, like a wave, may just be the medium through which stability (as energy) is transitioned from one form to another.

A History of the World in 100 Objects (2011) The British Museum.

Mac Ginty, Roger (2012) “Against Stabilization,” 1(1) Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, pp. 20-30.

Pretor-Pinney, Gavin (2010) The Wave Watcher’s Companion: From Ocean Waves to Light Waves via Shock Waves, Stadium Waves, and All the Rest of Life’s Undulations. New York: Perigee.