Tales of the Catfish God: Earthquakes in Japanese Woodblock Prints (1855)

Legend has it that when the tremors of the 1855 Ansei Edo earthquake had finally subsided, there were so many dead that survivors were forced to carry their loved ones’ bodies away in sacks of coal and sake barrels. With much of the city having been built on reclaimed marshland — often using heavy, rigid materials — Japan’s capital was a sitting duck for what was then the worst natural disaster in living memory. As aftershocks continued to roil the city for weeks on end, even those whose houses had miraculously escaped collapse took to living in the streets rather than chance having the ceiling fall down around them as they slept.

All the same, these dramatic conditions did not prevent a new genre of artwork from flourishing amid the rubble: a type of woodblock print known as namazu-e. Rooted in a myth that earthquakes were caused by the movements of a great catfish (or namazu in Japanese), these prints typically feature one or more of the titular creatures being set upon by angry humans or subdued by the gods. Associations between catfish and natural disasters predate the 1855 earthquake, with popular tales relating how the Shintō deity Kashima kept seismic shifts in check by pinning down the fish’s head with a stone. (Other versions show the creature being trapped by a gourd, visually referencing an idiomatic expression related to accomplishing a seemingly impossible task.) But it was only in the aftermath of the Ansei Edo earthquake that the idea surged to prominence in Japanese visual culture. Hundreds of these prints were issued between when the earthquake struck Edo on November 11 and when the government issued an official ban in December of the same year. Within that narrow sliver of time, anonymous printmakers across Edo — themselves still reeling from the calamity — managed to produce a truly remarkable range of images within the confines of the genre. The namazu sprout human limbs; they are led around by the “reins” of their whiskers or served up as a meal. They visit Edo’s red-light district; they dress as swordsmen and sumō wrestlers. Purchasers would typically have displayed these prints in their homes (or what was left of them), where the images acted as protective charms casting their apotropaic power over the building and those who inhabited it.

What is perhaps most striking about these post-earthquake prints is the incongruity between the devastation wrought by the disaster and the emotional tenor of the images that symbolically depict it. Walleyed, their mouths stretched into toothy grins, the catfish seem unbothered by the chaos they leave in their wake — and oblivious to the mob that sets about bashing and slicing them along the way. As a genre, namazu-e prints refuse the mournfulness one might expect, instead embracing an anarchic sense of humor that transforms the unpredictable ferocity of the natural world into an almost loveable — and ultimately placable — rascal.

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Three 1855 woodblock prints of earthquake catfish, all depicting the motif that namazu generate both wealth and destruction as forces of yo-naoshi, or world-rectification — Source: left, centre, right.

While many histories of the Ansei Edo earthquake have emphasized its disproportionate impact on the city’s poor, the scholar Gregory Smits writes that the actual data is not so clearcut. Jōtō Sanjin, who published a written account of a walk he took in the aftermath of the earthquake, describes the wealthy area of Daimyō kōjō (Lords’ Lane) as being not only flattened but burnt over — many of the aristocratic manors having contained stores of imported saltpeter. If certain upper-class districts were particularly hard hit, by contrast, commoners across various professions stood to benefit both from the widespread rebuilding projects and aid monies splashed out by a central government anxious to head off potential discontent (natural disasters being commonly read as signs of cosmic discontent with the powers that be). This itself would become a favored theme of namazu-e artists, who satirically depicted firefighters, builders, and the like praying for earthquakes out of selfish greed. Here is another attempt to take what might be moments of profound rupture and reconcile them with familiar schemas: the avarice of our fellow mortals, not the apathy of the gods, is ultimately to blame for the calamities that befall us all.

It is the socially leveling aspect of the earthquake’s impact that is to account, at least in part, for the celebratory spirit that characterizes so many of the prints created in the weeks following the disaster. In one memorable example, a catfish commits seppuku, only to have money spill out of the slash in his belly instead of blood. In another, the artist has endowed the catfish with a whale-like blowhole out of which it expels a shower of coins, to the delight of onlookers on the shore. In this subgenre of namazu-e, writes Smits, the fish are imagined as forces of yo-naoshi, or world-rectification, restoring balance to society by redistributing wealth hoarded by the rich. Beneath the rubble of the old world, a new and fairer one perhaps lay waiting — for those willing and able to bring it into being.

The following examples of namazu-e come from a collection titled “Ansei ōjishin-e” (Ansei Great Earthquake Pictures), courtesy of Japan’s National Diet Library. The artist names are unknown as most of these catfish prints were published illegally and without artist signatures to evade censorship from the shogunate.

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Note: The English versions of the titles are by machine translation and so likely far from perfect.