Pesky Catfish – A Tsunami Averted


Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan with a Namazu, (catfish) 1866.

A 6.9 magnitude earthquake troubled Japan on Tuesday, again off the coast of Fukushima, in a grim reminder of the horrible disaster of 2011. The quake was felt as far away as Tokyo and the country braced itself for the potential repeat of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that had caused such devastation five years before. Mercifully, there was no ensuing disaster and there was no tsunami, no flooding to homes and towns and subsequently no loss of life.


Fires Following the Ansei Earthquake of 1855.

Japan is no stranger to natural disaster and earthquakes are perhaps one of the most devastating events that can befall a city. In previous centuries, Edo (now Tokyo), was plagued by earthquakes that caused destruction to the fragile straw and paper houses by disturbing open fires, lanterns, cooking stoves and other vulnerable objects. The subsequent fires would spread from home to home and street to street, destroying whole areas of the city with tragic loss of life and property. In the catastrophic Ansei Earthquake of October 2nd 1852, 7000 lives were lost and the devastation is clearly visible in the broadsheet woodblock print above. Today, the fear is of tsunami and its effects on low lying areas of dense population and of course on the potential damage to the nuclear power station at Fukushima. The woodblock print though clearly shows the horrors caused by the quick spread of fire through closely packed houses.


Kunisada. Ichikawa Danzo Subduing a Giant Catfish. 1820

Like any nation, superstition in Japan about earthquakes was rife. The current show at the Toshidama Gallery, is devoted to the 1908 textbook by Henri Joly, Legend in Japanese Art.

Here is Joly on the Japanese legend of the catfish:

The earthquake fish or NAMAZU or JISHINUWO. This is the catfish to which earthquakes are due; the creature has a body like an eel, a large flattened head, and long feelers on both sides of its mouth, it lies with its tail under the provinces of Shimosa and Hidachi, and when angry, wriggles about, shaking the foundations of Japan. A large stone rests on its back, the Kaname Ishi, protruding in the garden of the temple of the God KASHIMA  DAIMIOJIN (Takemika Tsuchino Mikoto). This stone goes deep into the bowels of the earth, it is the rivet (Kaname) which binds the world together: when KASHIMA and KADORI MIOJIN came from Heaven to subdue the world, Kashima thrust his sword  through the earth, the mighty blade shrank and became the Kaname Ishi which Kashima alone can move. Kadori Miojinis Futsu Nuchino Mikoto, he has a gourd, and with that gourd and the help of Kadori, this God keeps the fish quiet. Mitsukuni, Daimio of Mito, grandson of Tokugawa leyasu, with a Saint Thomas bent of mind, had the earth dug around the Kaname Ishi, but his men could not get at the base of it. Kadori and his gourd, hugging the Namazu, is sometimes a subject for artistic treatment. His efforts are little thought of if one believes the proverbial sentence : A Gourd against a Namazu, (meaning useless effort) alluding to the slipping of the gourd on the fish’s skin.


Yoshitaki Oni Demon and Catfish 1871

Unfortunately it seems that neither gourd nor Kadori are much protection against what we now know are the forces of nature. We can only hope that the recent seismological activity off Japan’s eastern coast quietens of its own accord and these current anxieties are brought to an end.




About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in Asian Art, Earthquake, Floating World, Ichikawa Danjuro, Japanese Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunisada, Namazu-e, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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