A book on the impact of earthquakes in human history claims that records of earthquakes in Japan “have been kept faithfully since 481 CE, a time when seismic events were thought to be caused by the wriggling of a gigantic catfish that lived in the sea beneath Japan and supported the islands on its back.”[1] Writing in an art magazine, Hidemi Shiga says, “In premodern Japan, people believed that namazu (catfish) living under the earth caused earthquakes.”[2] Seismologist Tsuji Yoshinobu, in a paperback book describing earthquake mechanisms for general readers, includes a onepage column, “Edo Period People's View of Earthquakes,” in which he states that the common people in 1855 thought that movements of a giant catfish under the ground caused earthquakes.[3] In his study of the 1891 Nōbi earthquake, Gregory Clancey claims, “Before the Meiji Restoration . . . earthquakes were considered the consequence of movements of a giant catfish.”[4] Pioneer seismologist Musha Kinkichi also wrote that “people of old” in Japan regarded a catfish as the cause of earthquakes, although he explains that the idea originated at some point after the Kamakura period. Calling the idea that catfish cause earthquakes “ridiculous,” Musha then cites a tale from the 1856 Ansei Chronicle (Ansei kenmonshi) as a segue to exploring the possibility that catfish are able to predict earthquakes.[5] Clearly, it is
common for scholars in a variety of disciplines to believe that in the premodern past, a significant subset of Japan's residents thought that catfish caused earthquakes. Some even claim that this notion is of ancient vintage. A closer look at earthquake-related literature during the Tokugawa period, however, calls this claim into question. First, although some of the literature on earthquakes discussed catfish in the context of earthquake folklore, no academic work ever regarded catfish as a cause of earthquakes. There was no academic “catfish theory” of earthquakes during the Tokugawa period, nor was there a single, coherent folk theory involving catfish. The popular press consistently attributed earthquakes to imbalances in yin and yang, usually providing a simplified version of academic explanations. A typical example is a broadside print describing the 1853 Odawara earthquake as a clash of yin and yang, causing “thunder and rain in the skies and an earthquake on the ground.”[6] There is no doubt that by the nineteenth century, catfish had become a widely known symbol of earthquakes, but I have found no direct evidence that anybody regarded this symbol as the actual causal mechanism of earthquakes.

The catfish print entitled Compassion of the World-Rectifying Catfish (Yonaoshi namazu no nasake) features a catfish defending his species, saying rhetorically, “Even if millions of fish were to advance, how could we move this great earth even one inch?” Moreover, “Earthquakes are yin and yang

energy,” says the catfish, so people should not think badly of us.[7] The print is not seriously trying to explain earthquakes but is instead relying on a juxtaposition of the prevailing commonsense view that imbalances in yin and yang cause earthquakes with the catfish symbol to make a mildly humorous point. In general, the 1855 catfish prints relied on the metaphor of the movement of a giant catfishlike creature pinned down under the Kashima Shrine as the cause of earthquakes. This flexible metaphor enabled the prints to make statements about a wide variety of social phenomena while ostensibly discussing the earthquake. There is circumstantial evidence that even in 1855, the story of the giant catfish pinned down by the Kashima deity pushing on the Foundation Stone was not universally known among the residents of Edo. We cannot say with certainty what was in people's minds, but Tomisawa Tatsuzō points out that many early catfish prints featured detailed explanations of the mechanism by which Kashima suppresses the giant catfish with the Foundation Stone as well as other relevant items of earthquake lore.[8] In other words, at least some consumers of the prints, perhaps many of them, needed an explanation to grasp fully the relevant symbolism. When catfish prints discussed the actual causes of earthquakes, they relied on the workings of yin and yang, sometimes enhanced by Buddhist or other ideas. One print entitled Earthquakes Explained (Jishin no ben) features the image of a dragonlike creature encircling Japan—a common variation of the catfish metaphor. The print summarizes earthquake-related phenomena at considerable length. After explanations based on yin-yang, the clash of fire and water, and the geological characteristics of the earth, the discussion turns to earthquake lore:

According to folklore (zokusetsu), there is a giant catfish under the ground. The movement of its head and tail causes the earth to shake. Foregoing a detailed discussion of origins, there was a creature called an earthquake insect (jishin no mushi) on the face of an almanac from 1198. Written upon its figure are the sixty-six provinces of Japan. This explanation of earthquakes comes from six or seven hundred years ago, and in Buddhist sutras, it is a dragon (ryū). As Thoughts on Earthquakes [Jishinkō, 1830] states, this image is of ancient vintage. In examining various books from the time, the country did not always rest atop this creature, nor did the creature always assume the guise of a catfish. There were numerous variations on the dragon theme. We have borrowed this image for use in this print.[9]

Again, we see no suggestion that anyone regarded the folk explanation literally, even in a print produced for mass consumption. Moreover, the anonymous print author displays a sophisticated grasp of the mutability and complex history of the hybrid dragon-catfish-insect creature associated with earthquakes.

The main evidence that some Japanese may have believed a catfish or dragon under the ground caused earthquakes is that a small number of authors criticized the idea with sufficient vigor to suggest that somebody may actually have taken it seriously. For example, Kojima Fukyū wrote as follows in Treasury of Lamp-Lighting Dialogues (Heishoku wakumonchin, 1710) under the heading “Earthquake Explanation”:

Question: According to the explanations of women and children, the Kashima deity regrets earthquakes, and he uses the Foundation Stone to pin down a catfish. Have you heard of such a thing?
Answer: Occasionally yin and yang energy creates violent forces that can collapse houses and injure people. . . . As for the Foundation Stone at Kashima, in the talk of women and children there is a giant catfish under the earth upon whose back the entire territory of Japan rests. The movement of its head or tail causes violent shaking of the earth. For this reason, the Kashima deity pushes down on the Foundation Stone. Giving this matter some thought, how could this catfish support only Japan, not China, and yet China, too, is subject to earthquakes? It is laughable.[10]

In 1792, Takai Saiga was similarly dismissive in a work aimed at general audiences. In Primer on Heaven and Earth (Kunmō tenchiben), he wrote sarcastically, “We can say that explanations such as the catfish are the result of people who think that no countries exist outside Japan and who have no sense of the vastness of heaven and earth. China, India, and Europe all have large and small catfish. Does a fish surround these countries? If so, then every one of the myriad countries should have its own Foundation Stone.”[11] With the exception of relatively rare passages like these, few writers devoted space to rebutting the idea that catfish cause earthquakes. The topic typically came up in the context of earthquake lore, and serious intellectual attention to it sought to explain its folkloric origins or the reasoning behind the metaphor.

It is possible, therefore, that some Japanese in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought that catfish or other aquatic creatures caused earthquakes or were connected with earthquakes in some important way. Folk beliefs can be notoriously difficult to document. Nevertheless, all evidence leads to a conclusion that the majority of early modern Japanese understood the metaphoric nature of the earthquake catfish.

The remainder of this book consists of five chapters. Chapter 2, “Why the Earth Shakes,” examines early modern understandings of the causes of earthquakes from the standpoint of intellectual history and the history of science. Chapter 3, “Japan according to Earthquakes,” is arranged topically. Drawing on material from more than a dozen major earthquakes, I analyze their social effects. Next, “The Ansei Edo Earthquake” examines that event in detail, including patterns of destruction, patterns of relief, and some of its cultural products. After examining the earthquake itself, chapter 5, “Meanings,” analyzes its social, political, and economic significance,
especially in light of the collapse of the bakufu twelve years later. Chapter 6, “Into the Twenty-First Century,” examines the iconic function of the Ansei Edo earthquake in the modern era and the influence of early modern earthquake lore on the modern science of seismology, conceptions of Japan, and contemporary life in a country where the destructive potential of earthquakes and tsunamis has been dramatically demonstrated in the recent past.

  • [1] Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders, Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 172–173.
  • [2] Hidemi Shiga, “The Catfish Underground: Japan’s Earthquake Folklore and Popular Responses to Disaster,” Orientations Magazine for Collectors and Connoisseurs of Asian Art (April 2006), 77.
  • [3] Tsuji Yoshinobu, Zukai, Naze okoru? Itsu okoru? Jishin no mekanizumu (Nagaoka shoten, 2010), 206.
  • [4] Gregory Clancey, Earthquake Nation: The Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity, 1868–1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 216. I should point out that more recently Clancey has characterized the earthquake catfish as a metaphor, not a literal belief (e.g., presentation given at the symposium “Thinking through Disasters: Japanese Earthquakes Past and Present,” Columbia University, April 6, 2012).
  • [5] Musha, Jishin namazu, 12–22.
  • [6] “Sagami no kuni ōjishin,” in Inagaki Fumio, ed., Edo no taihen, ten no kan (Heibonsha, 1995), 58. See also Nishimaki Kōzaburō, ed., Kawaraban shinbun: Edo, Meiji sanbyaku jiken, vol. 1 (Heibonsha, 1978), 140–141, and “Saigai to kawaraban: Sono rekishiteki tenkai,” in Kinoshita and Yoshimi, Nyūsu no tanjō, 32–33. To view this print, see ishimoto/1/01–021/00001.jpg.
  • [7] Print #84 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 297. To view this print see http://
  • [8] Tomisawa Tatsuzō, “‘Namazue no sekai’ to minzoku ishiki,” Nihon minzokugaku, no. 207 (1996), 102.
  • [9] Print #18 in Miyata and Takada, eds. Namazue, 248. To view this image, see–043/00001.jpg.
  • [10] Kojiruien (Dictionary of Historical Terms) Database (Kyoto: Nichibunken, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, 2007), 1356–1357, in “Chibu,” entry “Jishin,” dbase/kojirui_e.html (accessed December 21, 2011). See also Hashimoto, Jishingaku, 19.
  • [11] Quoted in Hashimoto, Jishingaku, 20.
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