All cultures have traditional explanations for natural disasters that pre-date scientific explanations. In Japanese culture, at least since the 15th century, earthquakes have been associated with Namazu, a monstrous catfish believed to exist in the subterranean realm. The giant catfish was also associated with rectification of an unjust social order that was the result of a government that had fallen out of alignment with the moral principles governing the universe. Namazu demonstrates the complexity of a pre-scientific understanding of earthquakes and how cosmology, politics, and morality were often intertwined in pre-modern ways of thinking.

In this Namazu painting by an unknown artist, the god Kashima controls Namazu with his sword. ( Public domain )

The Namazu Legend

Namazu is mostly known from artistic depictions and is usually depicted as a giant catfish in a Japanese landscape or city. Typically, he will also be depicted along with the Japanese gods traditionally held to be responsible for keeping him from wreaking havoc on the inhabitants of the surface world.

In the traditional legend, which appears to have evolved between the 15th and 18th centuries, Namazu was a giant catfish that lived deep under the earth. The main Japanese deity responsible for controlling Namazu was the god Kashima who would hold Namazu in place with a giant stone.

The connection between Namazu and Kashima is shown by at least one picture scroll from 1793 of a Namazu float during a parade. Atop Namazu’s head is a copy of the foundation stone of the shrine of Kashima.

Before earthquakes were associated with Namazu catfish in Japan, the beast that made earthquakes was usually a dragon and sometimes a serpent. This dragon, surrounded by waves, is from a woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) from 1844. (Katsushika Hokusai / Public domain )

Origins of the Namazu Legend

Despite the widespread, usually metaphorical, association between catfish and earthquakes in Japan today, this is a relatively recent development. The earliest evidence of catfish being blamed for causing earthquakes only goes back a few hundred years. The first prominent appearance of catfish in Japanese art only dates to about the 15th century.

It appears that originally dragons or serpents were more commonly associated with earthquakes. Since dragons are associated with water in the Chinese and Japanese traditions, it was not actually a significant jump from dragons causing earthquakes in the watery depths to catfish causing earthquakes in the popular imagination of the pre-modern Japanese. By the 19th century, it appears that giant catfish had largely replaced dragons as the primary agents behind earthquakes in Japan.

“Song lyrics attempting to ward off earthquakes caused by catfish [Namazu].” ( UBC Library, Rare Books and Special Collections )

The Association Between Namazu Catfish and Earthquakes

It is possible that the legend of Namazu also arose from claims by Japanese fishermen that catfish had the ability to predict earthquakes. In the mid-19th century, after the Ansei Edo earthquake of 1855, one Japanese fisherman claimed that he had noticed catfish behaving strangely right before the earthquake.

There are similar stories from Japanese fishermen about tsunamis (tidal waves) that happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the legend of Namazu had already been in existence for centuries by this point, it is possible that similar claims by ancient fishermen may have helped inspire the original legend.

The idea that catfish were able to sense earthquakes also led to later scientific research in Japan into the possibility that catfish and other aquatic life could predict earthquakes. In the 1930s, one Japanese scientist even claimed that he observed catfish predict up to 100 earthquakes. At least allegedly, an earthquake would always happen within 12 hours when they swam in a certain way.

Japanese intellectuals borrowed the Taoist concept of yin and yang in which everything was a manifestation of two forces controlling the universe. Yin and yang were believed to act in the universe through five agents: earth, water, fire, wood, and metal. The scientific, or proto-scientific, explanation of the day for earthquakes was an imbalance between two of the five agents. (Photo Dharma / CC BY 2.0 )

Namazu as a Metaphor for Cosmic Forces

The islands of Japan are part of a continental arc system where the Pacific plate and the Philippine plate are being subducted beneath the Eurasian plate. As a result, earthquakes have been part of the human experience on the islands since time immemorial. Therefore, it is not surprising that earthquake-causing cosmic beings are a common theme in Japanese mythology.

While some Japanese folktales suggest a literal giant catfish causing earthquakes, Japanese intellectuals tended to think of Namazu as metaphorical, at best, and preferred to explain earthquakes in terms of an imbalance in the forces governing the universe.

Others did not necessarily see a contradiction between the two explanations since the imbalance-of-cosmic-forces explanation tended to be sufficiently vague to accommodate traditional deities and monsters as being the agents of these forces. Japanese intellectuals at the time borrowed the Taoist concept of yin and yang in which everything was a manifestation of two forces controlling the universe.

Yin and yang were believed to act in the universe through five agents: earth, water, fire, wood, and metal. The scientific, or proto-scientific, explanation of the day for earthquakes was an imbalance between two of the five agents. Water was believed to be dominant in the subterranean realm. Sometimes, however, fire would temporarily dominate over water which would lead to an imbalance, causing an earthquake.

Shogun Tokugawa Iesada (reigned: 1853–1858), by painter Kawamura Kiyoo (1852-1934), Tokugawa Memorial Foundation. (Kawamura Kiyoo / Public domain)

Shogun Tokugawa Iesada (reigned: 1853–1858), by painter Kawamura Kiyoo (1852-1934), Tokugawa Memorial Foundation. (Kawamura Kiyoo / Public domain )

Namazu as an Arbitrator of Cosmic Justice

After the mid-19th century, Namazu also became increasingly associated with political commentary and criticism of the government in Japan. Part of the reason for this is the aftermath of the Ansei Edo earthquake of 1855.

In 1855, Edo was the headquarters of the shogun, the military leader of Japan . At the time, Japan was officially ruled by an emperor, but the emperor in Kyoto was more of a religious and cultural figurehead. The real power was in the hands of the shogun, whose government, the bakufu, directly administered about 20% of the country at the time and maintained hegemony over the rest.

In the early 19th century, Japan faced famine, natural disasters, and epidemics which shook the Japanese economy and placed many Japanese commoners into economically difficult times. Riots that took place across Japan during this time suggest that many common Japanese blamed the government for their problems. At the same the time, there were also many powerful merchants who owned considerable amounts of the wealth in Japan which many poorer Japanese resented, accusing them of hoarding too much wealth. 

Most ancient Japanese believed that there was an underlying moral order to the universe and that governments needed to conform to this order. If they did not conform to this order, it was believed that natural disasters and resulting social upheaval would eventually lead to the downfall of unjust governments as the universe attempted to right itself by removing the unjust government.

When the Ansei Edo earthquake hit in 1855, the earthquake appears to have affected the lowland parts of Edo more than the highland parts. Many of the lowland areas of Edo were inhabited by the wealthy and by government officials. Japanese commoners would have taken this as a sign of cosmic displeasure towards the Edo government .

In the aftermath of the earthquake, artists began to create images of Namazu causing the earthquake but also acting to reimburse the poor. Examples of such artwork include images of Namazu spewing out coins. In other artwork, rich merchants are made to excrete coins out of various orifices.

This artwork may represent early examples of political cartoons and satire. They depicted the wealthy being made to redistribute their wealth to restore the cosmic balance. The idea of wealthy merchants vomiting out coins would also have made sense if they were considered to have taken too much money, thus making the economy sick or unhealthy.

Namazu was causing the money to be returned to circulation to create a healthy economy from which all Japanese could benefit.

In 1854, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived from the United States in metal hulled ships to make a trade agreement with Japan, Namazu also appeared in a political context. Artwork depicting American steamships as the monster Namazu bringing money to the people of Japan. ( Matt Alt )

Namazu: A Mixture of Cosmology, Politics, and Religion

Many ancient cultures interpreted natural disasters as being the result of some sort of divine displeasure or cosmic imbalance. To the Japanese of the mid-19th century, an earthquake was not just an occasion to call out the government for not doing its job correctly. Many Japanese probably believed that the earthquake was a sign that the government was no longer in alignment with cosmic justice. The government had lost its moral fitness to govern, and the cosmos was working to remove it, restoring moral order.

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It is interesting that a year earlier, in 1854, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived from the United States to make a trade agreement with Japan, Namazu also appeared in a political context. Artwork was made that depicted the American steamships as the monster Namazu bringing money to the people of Japan. The political artist may have seen the arrival of the American ships and new potential for trade as something that would disrupt the current government of Japan, causing a metaphorical earthquake. He appears to have been right.

The introduction of trade with the United States and other Western countries helped lead to the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the rise of a new centralized political order with the emperor restored as its figurehead. It is possible that many Japanese connected the earthquake with this political shift.

Natural disasters may have been seen as harbingers that the current political order was not serving the Japanese people well and was going to be replaced. The Ansei Edo earthquake was a sign that something was cosmically out of balance with the current government of Japan and the arrival of the American ships was a sign of how this balance would be restored.

In the mid-19th century, before the Meiji Restoration , Japan was mostly agrarian, technologically backwards, politically divided among feudal lords, and too militarily weak to prevent Western powers from forcing it to enter treaties that limited its control over foreign trade. Japan looked like the latest indigenous culture about to become a casualty of Western imperialism.

By the end of the Meiji period, in 1912, Japan was a centralized, industrial power with a strong army and navy. It is arguable that this transformation was seen as evidence of cosmic forces correcting an imbalance created by the shoguns.

Today, religion, cosmology, and politics are considered separate things. But in the ancient world, and even the early modern world, they were intertwined. Cosmic disturbances were filled with political implications as well as signs of either divine displeasure or providence. It is in this way that Namazu, a mythical giant catfish that lived in subterranean depths, became a political symbol for rectifying economic and social injustice in 19th century Japan.

This Namazu painting by an unknown artist is called Yonaoshi namazu no nasake (“The compassion of the world-reforming catfish” or “Namazu the saviour”). This woodblock print was made right after the quake of 1855. The giant catfish is believed to have caused the earthquake, and subsequent rebuilding meant jobs and income for the unemployed. ( Public domain )

Summary and Conclusions

Namazu, the mythical giant catfish which dwells beneath the islands of Japan, is an interesting example of the connection between cosmology, religion, and politics. Namazu was a folk explanation for earthquakes. Academically oriented Japanese tended to explain earthquakes in terms of the restoration of the balance between the agents of yin and yang and may have seen Namazu as either a metaphorical or a bucolic folktale. Alternatively, they may have seen it as a concrete manifestation of abstract cosmic forces.

In addition to explaining natural phenomena, Namazu was also invoked in criticisms of the social and political order. When devastating tsunamis and earthquakes occurred, this was seen as a sign that the governing officials were not doing their job and that the universe was restoring the moral balance which they had disrupted through their poor governance. In this case, Namazu was also the rectifier of cosmic injustice, creating the balance that governments were supposed to implement in the social and political spheres.

Some Japanese commoners, and probably Japanese elites as well, interpreted the Edo earthquake of 1855 as an indictment against the military Tokugawa government of Japan. It may also have been seen as a way to correct a diseased economy through the redistribution of wealth. Many poor artisans had to be paid by the elites to help rebuild the damaged parts of the city, creating a redistribution of sorts.

Although most Japanese no longer literally believe in Namazu, and it is debatable how many actually did in ancient Japan, Namazu is an example of a phenomenon that continues today whenever people see natural disasters as a sign of divine displeasure or cosmic imbalance.

Even in the past century, several disease outbreaks were attributed to divine punishment, infamously including the AIDs epidemic. Most recently, some people see the COVID-19 pandemic as earth’s biosphere “fighting back” against the excesses of humanity’s exploitation of the natural environment. In this case, earth is not seen as a literal deity, but the principle is the same. Humans have disrupted the natural order and, as a result, the natural order has responded to correct the problem.

Top image: A namazu or catfish motif earthquake art (by an unknown artist), entitled Shin Yoshiwara ōnamazu yurai or “The cause of the great catfish at Shin Yoshiwara.” The work shows women of the Edo pleasure quarters blaming the catfish for the earthquake, but the catfish is delighted to have these ladies press flesh with him and threatens to squirm again to cause an aftershock.                  Source: Public domain

By Caleb Strom


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