The defeated catfish outstretched on the table divides post-disaster Edo into two distinct groups – those in the upper half of the picture, including builders, who benefit from the disaster; and those in the lower half, including wealthy merchants, who suffered greater losses.
The long catalogue of disasters that have struck Japan’s capital has long daunted those unaccustomed to the tremors of the earth. On 11 November 1855, a 6.9-7.1-magnitude earthquake destroyed most of Edo (precursor to modern Tokyo). Estimates of death ranged from 7000 to 10,000. Eighty aftershocks per day continued to shake the city for nine days after the initial tremor.
Although there were no newspapers published in the city (since the shogunate forbade public comments on the regime), within a few weeks of the disaster, hundreds of earthquake-related woodblock prints appeared, many of which featured a giant catfish, namazu. These fascinating prints, called namazu-e, offer a window on the socio-political consciousness of Edo in the final decades of the Tokugawa period, and bring to the fore disaster’s capacity as an agent of social change.
Japanese folk explanations attributed earthquakes variously to the movement of a giant creature that supported the earth (usually a dragon/snake, ox or fish); the movement of a deity or giant supporting the earth; the shaking of a subterranean, load-bearing pillar; or the careless movement of human ancestors. There was also the notion, derived from Chinese philosophy, that earthquakes result from the temporary imbalance of the forces of yin and yang that are embedded in the earth. However, from the late seventeenth century onward, the notion that a giant subterranean catfish is the true cause of earthquakes gained more currency. While pre-Lisbon theodicy placed responsibility in God’s hands, the Japanese placed it in the hands of namazu, the catfish. It was said that the catfish lay under a stone at Kashima shrine, at the easternmost point of Honshu; when the god of the shrine neglected his duty of holding down the catfish, the creature would awaken, thus causing tremors.
Around the time of the Ansei earthquake, the god of Kashima might have been particularly negligent, for the earthquake hit at a time of seismic instability throughout Japan – in 1853, an earthquake destroyed a castle in 1853, another struck near the imperial shrine in Ise in 1854, and two tsunamis in 1854 caused thousands of deaths along the Pacific coast. Was all this the work of the giant catfish and of divine negligence? The people of Edo rejected the idea of pure contingency, and viewed the 1855 catastrophe in the context of drastic political change; in other words, human agency played a significant role in the coming of the disaster. For the Japanese, it was telling that the disaster followed so closely the visits of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 and 1854 (a period that had seen its fair share of natural disasters); the opening of the ports suddenly destabilized the shogunate system that had ruled in Japan for 250 years, and the expansion of foreign relations was resented by some. Social and political order was weakening (later to be replaced by the centralized state in 1868), and the Tokugawa shogunate was on the decline. Assigning blame to the divine authorities was in some ways a veiled criticism of the authorities governing the nation, who were increasingly unable to take care of the people, and as a result of the government’s negligence, cataclysmic events have occurred.
This print interprets the disaster as resulting from the negligence of Ebisu (the god of fishing and commerce, asleep in the foreground), in whose care Kashima had left the city, seen burning in the upper half of the picture, as Kashima on a white horse rushes back in a panic. Namazu is depicted as a terrifying force of destruction, yet from its cavernous mouth falls golden coins, signaling the post-disaster redistribution of wealth.
Society was equally shaken by the other events that occurred in a period of great volatility, including crop failures; epidemics; the Tempo famine of 1833-1837; riots and popular revolts. The severe fractures in Japanese society were becoming more apparent. The namazue prints, which emerged in the aftermath of the Ansei earthquake, in part responded to the general atmosphere of instability. The catfish depicted in the prints were not punitive, but were more frequently sympathetic. One of the major themes portrayed by the namazue was the redistribution of wealth and the rebalancing of society. Common among the prints were depictions of the catfish forcing wealthy men to spew out coins, thus contributing to the charity funds that would help rebuild the city. According to Kitahara Itoko (Japanese historian on disasters), public registers listed the names of all donors, with the wealthy contributing more. While prosperous tycoons hoarded goods and wealth during the Tokugawa regime, society became imbalanced. Namazu restores the free circulation of money, so that the economy, like the vital forces of nature, would flow freely, thus avoiding stagnation and the festering of greed. In other words, disaster restored social health by correcting an imbalance. The subversiveness of this message meant that the shogunate soon banned the printing and distributing of namazue prints.
The prints also showed how some social groups, such as builders, had benefited from the cataclysm, since their skills were rendered indispensable by the devastation. Thus destruction was followed by renewal, and in the collective sharing of loss and the communal efforts of reconstruction, a ‘disaster utopia’ (Kitahara) was created – akin to the rustic paradise depicted in von Kleist’s ‘Earthquake in Chile’. In stark contrast to the brutality that followed the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Ansei earthquake facilitated the utopian dream of restoration and restructuring. Namazu, as depicted in these prints, was not so much the cause of the earthquake as its visual manifestation of social change – a reminder that the question of community lies at the heart of disaster.
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Smits, Gregory, ‘Shaking Up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints, Journal of Social History, vol. 39, no. 4 (summer 2006), 1045-1078.
Smits, Gregory, ‘Conduits of Power: What the Origins of Japan’s Earthquake Catfish Reveal about Religious Geography’, Japan Review 24 (2012), 41-65.