Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) Ichikawa Danzo Subduing a Giant Catfish, c1820.
Once again, Japan has been struck by a catastrophic earthquake. The mid-April quakes that hit the southern island of Kyushu, caused much devastation with at least 34 people thought to have been killed, about 1,500 injured and more feared buried after building collapses and landslides. It has already caused widespread damage, with several landslides and a village evacuated over fears a dam might burst.
Japan is well used to these natural disasters and the print which is illustrated above is a folk art rendition of a traditional superstition about earthquakes, and their causes. Following the terrible Edo earthquake of 1855, it became popular to blame the disaster on the thrashing of a giant catfish under lake Biwa. He is considered one of the yo-kai, creatures of mythology and folklore, causing misfortune and disasters. Only the thunder god Kashima can immobilise namazu and with the help of a heavy capstone he will push the fish against the foundations of the earth. However the god sometimes gets tired or is distracted from his duty, Namazu will use these moments to wiggle his tail, causing an earthquake in the human world. Given the size of these creatures, it is hardly surprising that myths were created around them.
There are several hundred known catfish prints, most of which were produced in the years immediately following the Ansei earthquake. This print is rare in predating that cataclysm by several decades. The Namazu-e (catfish prints) were often used as social agit-prop, they sometimes contained warnings about corruption or the excesses of the rich. In a sense they served as a kind of socialist broadsheet, warning the rich and encouraging the poor and some were said to magically protect the household from quake damage. The popularity of namazu-e expanded after the 1855 event, and as many as 400 different types became available within weeks. However, the namazu-e phenomenon abruptly ended two months later when the Tokugawa government, which ordinarily maintained a strict system of censorship over the publishing industry, cracked down on production. Only a handful are known to survive today making this early example especially rare.
The absurdity of the print is not meant in any way to diminish the tragedy of recent events nor to detract from the suffering of the Japanese people. The Toshidama Gallery wishes all our friends and colleagues in Japan our very best wishes.