The word “tsunami” comes from Japanese. With a monarchy that dates back to 660 BC, the Japanese culture has a long and active memory. And as the people who invented Godzilla, they have a reputation for effectively representing their shared anxieties and doomsday scenarios.
It’s hard to name a more iconic Japanese image than Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Or a more beautiful one. Both its subject and style seem to embody part of the Japanese identity. Until a few days ago, if you had used the words “wave” and “Japan” in a sentence, this is what I would have pictured – a beautiful woodblock that’s been reproduced and remixed all over the world, on t-shirts, tattoos, jewelry, bedsheets, wallpaper, sneakers, etc. But three days ago the picture was suddenly usurped by a horrifying instance of the real thing.
It’s a long and subtle transformation for a natural disaster to become a cool sneaker design. A thing like a tsunami echoes through a culture just like it ripples through the ocean. The tragedy becomes a memorial, the memorial becomes a fixture, the fixture becomes a motif, the motif becomes a cliché. I’m glad. This is how life nourishes art. But when life occasionally reasserts itself – with a devastating act of God that reminds us how pale and shallow our cliché had become – it feels abrupt, overhwelming, unfair. And a little embarrassing. Like we got caught staring at our sneakers while the ocean was rising. The lesson, I think, is not to stop putting waves on our sneakers, but to continually remind ourselves what they originally mean.