Field of Science

Namazu: The Earthshaker

According to Japanese myth the cause of earthquakes is the giant catfish Namazu or Namazu-e (the second term refers to the woodcuts of Namazu) living buried in the underground. Namazu is one of the yo-kai (in a very broad sense translatable as "monster"), creatures of Japanese mythology and folklore that were associated or caused misfortune or disasters. By moving his tail he can shake the entire earth and unfortunately he loves to cause trouble and havoc.

Fig.1. Japanese wood-block print showing a mythic catfish that causes earthquakes. Private collection, Berkeley, California (figure from KOZAK & CERMAK 2010). The horizontally outstretched catfish divides the picture in two parts, in the upper part there are rich merchants, in the lower part mourning people who have lost everything by the earthquake. The aftermath of the earthquake is depicted as possibility to redistribute the wealth; rich people have to divide their wealth with the poor to restore the general "cosmic" balance.

Namazu can be controlled only be the god Kashima, which with help of a powerful capstone pushes the fish against the underground and in such doing immobilized him. However the god sometimes got tired or is distracted from his duty and Namazu can move a bit and cause an earthquake.

Fig.2. The god Kashima immobilize with help of a capstone a guilty Namazu, demonstrating to a bunch of small catfishes, representing earthquakes of the past, the severe punishment for their behaviour (here a similar depiction of other punishments). However the catfish tries to defend his behaviour as response to his envy to other fish species, m
uch more appreciated and popular in the traditional Japanese cooking (figure from LEWIS 1985).

Already in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) the giant catfish was as a river deity associated to natural disasters, not surprisingly caused by water like floods or heavy rainfall. In these early traditions however namazu acts often as a premonition of danger, warning people from an imminent catastrophe or by swallowing dangerous water-dragons prevents even disasters.
Earthquakes, as apparently trembles of earth, were explained by movements of deities or creatures supporting the Japanese main islands, these creatures included gods, giants, an ox, dragons or snakes and a fish.
The dragon was a very old and powerful symbol imported from China and was in old times the main culprit of earthquakes, however during the 18th century, a giant Namazu gradually replaced the giant dragon in the popular imagination. This change from dragon to Namazu was minor, because dragons were also associated to water and rivers and so were closely related to the catfish in the popular imagination.
During the 19th century and after the earthquake of Edo (modern Tokyo) in October 1855 the wrongdoings of Namazu became more a punishment of human greed, it was believed that the catfish by causing havoc forced people to redistribute equally their wealth, in this role Namazu became yona
oshi daimyojin, the "god of world rectification".

Fig.3. Namazu in the form of yonaoshi daimyojin perpetuating his harakiri (in Japanese "Seppuku namazu", 1855) - with his sacrifice he will provide gold and money, dropping from his belly, for the poor people (figure from University Vienna). Some of these depictions have also magical powers: whoever take them home will be protected from earthquakes and experience "10.000 years of luck".

The classic images of Namazu (more than 300 are today known) were mainly a response of the Edo earthquake - by trying to depict also "positive aspects" (redistribution of wealth) of the earthquake the artists hoped to rise the morals of the survivors. Namazu was used also in satire, he is represented as a good-for-nothing, a coward acting only when the gods are gone, a reference to the aristocracy and incompetent civil servants.

Fig.4. A Namazu, representing the earthquake of Edo (modern Tokyo) in October 1855, is attacked by peasants and concubines (here a similar version), in the background help for the catfish is approaching - craftsmen, who will take profit of the reconstruction of the city. The earthquake of Edo, which killed thousand of inhabitants, coincided with the traditional "month without gods", believed a period when all of the gods gather in a secret temple. Taking advantage of the absence of Kashima, the coward Namazu rebelled and caused destruction and sorrows in the human world (figure from Wikipedia).

There are various versions of the myth with slight modifications; in some narratives the god doesn't use a rock, but a sword to nail the Namazu onto the ground. According to another version it is the god Kadori controlling the catfish, with the help of a giant and magical pumpkin. Also the main villain can be represented by a giant eel - Jinshin-Uwo - or a giant earthquake beetle - Jinshin-Mushi.

Fig.5. A version of Namazu controlled by Kashima with a sword (figure from Wikipedia).

Fig.6. ... and Kadori using a giant gourd made of a pumpkin (figure from SanAndreasFault.org).

Fig.7. A picture by the Japanese artist Kadzusa-ya Iwazô of 1842 lampooning the myth of Namazu, a Tanuki (a sort of mythical raccoon-dog with the ability to enlarge voluntarily parts of his body) is subduing the catfish with his giant scrotum (figure from Kuniyoshi Project).

Bibliography:

KOZAK, J. & CERMAK, V. (2010): The Illustrated History of Natural Disasters. Springer-Verlag: 203
LEWIS, T.A.(ed) (1985): Volcano (Planet Earth). Time-Life Books: 176


Online Resources:

SMITS, G. (): Earthquakes in Japanese History. (Accessed 17.03.2011)

3 comments:

  1. Wow this is really interesting. Thanks for posting this. I actually used Namazu in a 101 Geography lecture.

    ReplyDelete

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