On this day in 1855, there was a massive earthquake in Edo (now Tokyo), Japan. Obviously, I’m not celebrating that. It was awful. 50,000 homes were destroyed in the quake and subsequent fires and 7,000 people lost their lives. What i want to talk about is the, what now seems, unusual response to the disaster. Printers began to print and sell pictures of catfish. Thousands of pictures of catfish. There were about 400 different versions.
There was in Japan, a strong association between catfish and earthquakes. Traditionally they were said to be caused by an enormous catfish that lived under the earth. Normally he would be restrained by the god Kashima with a large rock. But if the god got tired, or a bit bored, the catfish would start to thrash about when he wasn’t looking. That would cause an earthquake.
So the catfish pictures, called namazu-e, were intended partly to be a talisman that would protect a person against further earthquakes. Particularly the ones that show people swarming over the catfish and attacking it with anything they can lay their hands on. But that isn’t the whole story. The area most heavily affected by the earthquake was where the richer people lived. It damaged the mansions and storehouses of major warrior households as well as government offices, while the poorer area of the city suffered far less damage. So maybe it was some sort of divine retribution on an unequal society.
Although an earthquake is a terrible thing, for the survivors it is also a great opportunity. The rich people would now have to spend some of their money to pay workers to rebuild for them. They would have to spread their wealth around a bit instead of just sitting on it. Hoarding money, which was essentially metal, was considered unhealthy for society. Metal is an element that must keep moving or it will cause problems. So, paying labourers to rebuild and making charitable donations and generally circulating their wealth throughout society was a healthy thing to do. This makes perfect sense. In recent years we’ve all seen what it’s like to live in a society where rich people keep all the money while the rest of us struggle to survive. So some of the namazu-e show the catfish disgorging money as an act of atonement for the havoc he has caused. In this way the catfish can also represent puffed up and self-important people being taken down a peg or two by the after effects of the quake. They are a kind of political statement and thinly veiled metaphor with which ordinary people could express their feelings about the rich or the inefficiency of their government. It would have been dangerous for people to express their feelings in this way if their very military rulers had not been thrown into disarray by the disaster. After about two months, the government managed to sort itself out and the printing of namazu-e was called to a halt. But it was fun whilst it lasted.
So did the Japanese really believe, as recently as 1855, that earthquakes were caused by a giant catfish? Actually no-one anywhere really knew what caused earthquakes until the theory of plate tectonics was accepted in the 1960s. But the answer is probably not. The catfish was merely a metaphor for the disaster. But doubtless some people thought it was true, because people are like that.