The Giant Black Catfish that Shook Japan
In November 1855, the Great Ansei Earthquake struck the city of Edo (now Tokyo), claiming 7,000 lives and inflicting widespread damage. Within days, a new type of color woodblock print known as namazu-e (lit. “catfish pictures”) became popular among the residents of the shaken city. These prints featured mythical giant catfish (namazu) who, according to popular legend, caused earthquakes by thrashing about in their underground lairs.
The popularity of namazu-e exploded, and hundreds were available within weeks. However, the namazu-e craze abruptly ended two months later when the Tokugawa government, which maintained a strict system of censorship over the publishing industry, cracked down on production. Only a handful survive today; more can be seen here.
- Picture 1 - Namazu are normally kept under control by the god Kashima using a large rock. The Great Ansei Earthquake is said to have occurred when Kashima went out of town and left Ebisu (god of fishing and commerce) in charge. In this print, the giant catfish unleashes destruction on the city while Ebisu sleeps on the job. Kashima rushes home while the city burns, and Raijin the thunder god defecates drums.
- Picture 2 - Earthquake victims take revenge on the giant catfish responsible for the destruction.
- Picture 3 - This print refers to the old Japanese saying, “The most frightening things are earthquakes, thunder, fires, and fathers.” Here, a namazu and the gods of thunder and fire discuss their powers over a fish dinner while a middle-aged man (father) looks on.