Exhibit :: Disasters and Rebuilding in Japan: Perspectives and Testimonies from the Tri-Co Collection 


DescriptionColor woodblock


InstitutionInternational Research Center
for Japanese Studies
Namazu to Kanameishi

Works Cited

Catfish Prints & Shifting Society in 1855 Japan

Andrew Kandel, Swarthmore College, Class of 2014

Namazu-e are prints of the great catfish (namazu) that Edo (modern Tokyo) folklore held responsible for earthquakes. Their creators are usually anonymous. Like most Edo period (1600-1868) prints, Namazu-e were mass-produced and affordable to the lower classes.Namazu-e began circulation just two days after the Ansei Edo Earthquake, a 7.0 earthquake with an epicenter beneath Edo that struck on Nov. 11, 1855. This was just one of a series of disasters – 1854 had seen two major earthquakes elsewhere in Japan, and both 1853 and 1854 saw the unexpected arrival of the Black Ships of Commodore Perry. In prints, the namazu became an embodiment of the earthquake itself. While most Namazu-e were protective talismans against earthquakes, others showed the people of Edo taking revenge by physically assaulting the namazu. Other Namazu-e showed the distribution of wealth caused by earthquakes or the incompetency of divine forces meant to keep the namazu subdued. Still others equated the namazu with the Black Ships. In the context of many of these prints, the 1855 earthquake was an act of yonaoshi (世直し), "world rectification," a needed upheaval in a society that had grown stagnant and unhealthy. (Smits, 2006, p.1046) Not surprisingly, the shogunate censors of the time took note, and about two months after the earthquake, Namazu-e production, despite its profitability, was banned and all printing blocks were destroyed. (Smits, 2006, p. 1065)

The 1855 breakout of the Namazu-e genre popularized the association between catfish and earthquakes in the Japanese imagination. The folk idea of a great creature responsible for earthquakes was an old one, dating back at least to the 1620s, but until the Ansei Edo Earthquake this creature was variously described as a dragon, snake, whale, caterpillar, eel, fish, turtle, or any other sort of jishin no mushi – 'earthquake insects.' (Ouwehand, 1964, pp. 37-39) (Smits, 2012, pp. 44-47)

This particularly irreverent Namazu-e, produced anonymously and referred to as "Namazu and the Foundation Stone" (鯰と要石), mocks the deities who failed to keep the namazu subdued. The main responsibility falls on Kashima, who should have the namazu's head pinned beneath the foundation stone of the Kashima Shrine. The disaster here is attributed not to Kashima's incompetence but his absence – the earthquake occurred during the tenth month of the year, kannazuki or kaminazuki, the 'month without gods' when the gods were said to meet at the Izumo shrine. (Ouwehand, 1964, p. 16) Here, Kashima is rushing back to Edo on horseback only to find his way blocked by the thunder god, who is "thunder farting" – an Edo-period pastime in which one would try to fart more loudly than his opponents. He is farting loudly enough for small drums to come out of his bottom, adding to the chaos and noise of the namazu's thrashing. Ebisu, here acting as a rusugami or caretaker god covering for Kashima while he is away, dozes off and rests against the foundation stone while the namazu rages, wreaking great destruction and loss of life. From the beast's wide grin pours gold coins.

In this anonymous print, the local gods are either incompetent or held up by bureaucracy and unable to defend Edo and her people. It is possible that the print was meant to satirize not only the failure of divine authority but the general incompetency of human authority. Under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan was suffering from a series of disasters including the Kyoto earthquake of 1830, Tenpô Famine of 1833-1837, riots and rebellions during the famine, the Zenkô-ji Earthquake of 1847, Commodore Perry's arrival in 1853, and multiple large earthquakes in 1854. Matsudaira Shungaku, a government official, wrote to Abe Masahiro, the de facto leader of the shogunate, after the 1855 Edo earthquake that this string of events "definitely constitutes a heavenly warning." (Noguchi, 1997, p. 39. In Smits, 2006, p. 1050) To an observer, it seemed clear that Japan was out of balance and that divine forces were not pleased with her rulers, and Confucian thought had long held that natural catastrophes were punishments for the shortcomings of human rulers. (Ouwehand, 1964, p. 17) The Namazu-e often linked the 1855 Edo Earthquake to other disasters, but could not explicitly draw Matsudaira's conclusion without raising the ire of censors.

The 1855 Ansei Edo Earthquake also coincides with a general disillusionment with Kashima in Edo and a turn towards Amaterasu, who until then was little known locally, as a preferable saviour figure. (Smits, 2006, p. 1055) This is echoed in Namazu-ethat portray Kashima as Amaterasu's subordinate. As the imperial family traces their ancestry to Amaterasu, it is tempting to see turning away from local deities towards Amaterasu as a reflection of popular sentiment turning away from the shogunate and towards the emperor in Kyoto, but the emperor was still little known in Edo at the time, and was considered more a wish-granting deity than the political alternative the emperor would become during the Meiji Restoration thirteen years later. (Fujitani, 1996, pp. 1-9. In Smits, 2006, p. 1055) A shift towards a non-local deity, along with the connections drawn between the Edo Earthquake and other disasters throughout Japan, does reflect an increasing awareness of the interconnectedness of Japan as a whole and the stirrings of a nationalist identity among the Edo populace that could only be reinforced by the coming of foreigners to Japan's shores.

While the namazu is predominately destructive, prints like this also recognize the opportunity for wealth caused by such disasters, here represented by the gold coins falling from the namazu. This is especially true for those of certain professions such as carpenters, plasterers, sellers of construction supplies, physicians, porters, vendors of ready-to-eat foods, and producers of Namazu-e prints. (Ouwehand, 1964, pp. 30-31) While the earthquake destroyed the wealth of the rich, many working class people had some to lose but far more to gain in the earthquake's wake. In another print, the namazu speaks to the rich, saying,

"What, well? If I shake like this you will have to give up everything. Now, the money hoarded so far, none of that may be left. Spit out every bit of it. In that way the masses will have pleasure out of it!" (Ouwehand, 1964, p. 31)

The neo-Confucian scholar Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714) drew connections between the lack of economic circulation and natural disasters, saying, "If the flow of ki through heaven and earth is obstructed, abnormalities arise, causing natural disasters such as violent windstorms, floods and droughts, and earthquakes… Likewise, if vast material wealth is collected in one place and not permitted to benefit and enrich others, disaster will strike later." (Smits, 2006, p. 1060) By the nineteenth century, it was intellectual common sense that earthquakes were caused by subterranean imbalances between yin and yang or their five agents, (Smits, 2006, p. 1051) and when this was mixed with folk belief, it was not uncommon to portray the namazu's raging as a response to imbalance that, despite its destruction, inherently rebalances the world to some degree, so the namazu is rarely portrayed as a totally evil creature.

The 1855 Edo Earthquake was just one of the destabilizing forces that presaged the collapse of the Japanese government during the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and many Namazu-e reflect the attitudes of a time when the government seemed less and less in control of the Japanese archipelago. Increasing foreign incursion and dissatisfaction with the Tokugawa Shogunate would lead to civil war made possible in part by the destruction caused by repeated disasters and perceived divine dissatisfaction with Japan's rulers. Nowadays, of course, the rulers of a country are not blamed for the disaster itself, but rather the inevitable mismanagement of disaster relief. In the wake of the 1855 Edo Earthquake we also see a rise in nationalist self-identification among Edoites and a renewed empathetic interest in disasters elsewhere in Japan, such as the Zenkôji Earthquake of 1847. (Smits, 2006, p. 1049) This faint inkling has expanded into Japan's "hang in there, Japan" post-3/11 attitude. But the most visually striking legacy of the 1855 Earthquake must be the popularization of the namazu itself and the catfish's now permanent cartoonish association with earthquakes.