Other Precursors

The 1828 Sanjō earthquake produced a lengthy work on earthquakes, Koizumi Kimei's Account of Chastisement and Shaking (Chōshin hiroku). It begins with a detailed description of the geography of “our Echigo country” and then discusses precursors of earthquakes. For example, from about the seventh or eighth day, a thick foglike substance appeared in the mornings that obscured people's view, and a five-color rainbow appeared around the sun. A sound like thunder occurred just before the earth shook. The ground in fields moved in a wavelike manner when the shaking began, and the earth tore apart in places. The earthquake caused mountains to collapse and expelled muddy water from wells. It also expelled fire and fiery wind from within the earth, a reflection of the idea that yang energy under the ground causes earthquakes.[1]

Less than two years later, Thoughts on Earthquakes argued that because earthquakes are predictable with careful attention to precursors, in the absence of specific precursors people need not worry that a new main shock will soon strike. The main indications of earthquakes are dirt issuing forth from small holes in the ground (like the activity of moles), smoke coming from fields when they are plowed, and the water in wells becoming muddy.[2] Mention of smoke rising from the center of Kyoto in the second half of Thoughts on Earthquakes segues to further discussion of precursors. Examples include the sun and moon shining an abnormally red color and resembling a dish in the morning and evening. An observer reported mountains taking on a strange appearance in terms of their color just before the onset of shaking. In another case, a mineshaft conducted large quantities of steam or smoke—“earth ki”—upward, obstructing everyone's view from the waist up. Knowing it was a sign of an earthquake, nobody went into the mine and all escaped unscathed. Just before the shaking started, several thousand heron all took flight at once, because birds can also detect upwelling of earthly ki. Another warning sign was the appearance of a rainbow in places or circumstances where it would not usually be seen. These alleged warning signs came not from the author's direct observations but from reports and written accounts.[3]

The 1847 Zenkōji earthquake became especially prominent in the discourse following the Ansei Edo earthquake because the people of Edo retrospectively associated the two events. In hindsight, the Zenkōji earthquake became a source of potentially valuable information about earthquake precursors. In one account, a man who had experienced the Zenkōji earthquake told his son of certain cloud formations that had appeared before it began. Seeing the same clouds in the sky over Edo in 1855, the son removed valuables from his house, placing them in an open area, and took other precautions just in time.[4] Another piece of useful information from Zenkōji was that water levels in wells decreased prior to the earthquake.[5] The idea that changes in wells could predict earthquakes became a prominent feature of earthquake discussion in modern times.

One tale that circulated right after the Ansei Edo earthquake was that a giant magnetic stone approximately one meter in width, located at a shop called Nanigashi that sold eyeglasses, lost its magnetic properties roughly two hours before the main shock. Reported in Ansei Chronicle and Fujiokaya Diary, this tale is impossible to verify. Modern authors promoting earthquake prediction sometimes cite this 1855 “fact” as evidence supporting the hypothesis that electromagnetic anomalies often precede earthquakes.[6] There is no evidence that the device advanced beyond the drawing stage, despite claims by some modern writers that it existed.[7] Sakuma Shōzan (1811–1864) produced a prototype of a simpler device based on the same principle. The device itself is not extant, but a photograph Shōzan made of it is. It consists of a horseshoe-shaped magnet suspended from a string, to which a metal nail weighing about ten grams is attached at the bottom.[8] A sketch of a different device appears in Murayama Masataka's 1856 Thoughts on Earthquakes and Electricity (Shinden kōsetsu). It consists of a magnetic stone roughly six inches in diameter held above a basin by a stem. Various nails and pins hang from the bottom of the rock and should fall into the basin to make a warning sound before an earthquake strikes. Masataka's explanation reads, “In our country, from ancient times to the Ansei era, there have been instances in which earthquakes were connected with electricity [or thunder and lightning]. The diagram here describes an earthquake warning device based on a magnetic stone.”[9]

These devices made good sense based on the theory that magnets lose their magnetic properties just before an earthquake strikes. Because their theoretical basis was inaccurate and derived from unconfirmed rumor, these devices represent an early dead end for earthquake prediction research. Scientists such as Shōzan and Masataka were undoubtedly aware that electricity played a major role in many European theories of earthquakes, and general connections between electricity and magnetism were well known by this time. This background knowledge probably added credence to the tale from 1855 concerning the loss of magnetism. Furthermore, Japanese authors often did not distinguish between electricity in general and specific manifestations such as lightning, which had long been associated with earthquakes. A variation on this basic idea, one that continues even today to receive serious attention, is that certain fish can predict earthquakes. One speculative reason that some scientists posited during the twentieth century was that some fish are unusually sensitive to electrical signals given off just before an earthquake. The origins of the idea of fish as earthquake predictors also come from the Ansei Edo earthquake, and I discuss modern fish research and speculation in detail in chapter 6.

As we have seen, catfish became increasingly well-known symbols of earthquakes during the eighteenth century. Just because catfish were symbols of earthquakes, however, did not necessarily mean that anyone regarded them as predictors of earthquakes. Works such as Thoughts on Earthquakes list a wide variety of phenomena as possible indicators that an earthquake is about to strike but say nothing about catfish or any other species of fish. As Hashimoto points out, it was only after the Ansei Edo earthquake that some writers credited catfish with earthquake prediction.[10] The apparent locus of this idea is the 1856 Ansei Chronicle. Although the author is unknown, most of the text was probably written by Kanagaki Robun. It contains an account of an eel fisherman named Shinozaki from Nagakurachō in Honjo who tried various spots along the river on the evening of the second day of the tenth month. He caught not a single eel, but catfish were unusually active. He caught three catfish and recalled that when catfish are agitated and active, an earthquake will soon strike. Shinozaki returned home, spread a mat outside, put all his possessions on it, and otherwise made emergency preparations. His wife thought his actions ridiculous, but that night the earthquake struck. Another fisherman nearby Shinozaki ignored the message of the catfish agitation and continued to fish. He returned home to find his dwelling and possessions destroyed. The passage concludes by moralizing about the virtue of Shinozaki's perception and states that people who knew of the story realized “that negligence is one's own fault.” Ansei Chronicle characterizes the agitation of catfish as the earth starts to move as “a natural principle.”[11]
The specific idea that catfish can predict earthquakes seems to have started in 1855 or 1856, but there is some precedent for a general notion in folklore of certain fish as transmitters of messages. Miyata Noboru points out that a common motif in Japanese folklore along bodies of water is that catfish, along with eels, are “fish that can transmit messages” (mono iu sakana). In such lore, the fish are able to speak or turn into human form to transmit their messages. Catfish and similar fish appeared in tales in which people, typically fishermen, would excessively impinge on their domain— for example, a fisherman trying to catch a catfish with a cormorant. The catfish would assume human form and try to pass on a warning to stop the impingement. If the attempt failed and the fish was killed, because it was the ruler of the realm of water, some curse or punishment would come forth from heaven, often a flood.[12] The circa 1855 transformation of catfish into predictors of seismic events was likely a variation of this general motif. The prominence of catfish in the cultural products associated with the 1855 earthquake surely aided in this transformation.

  • [1] “Chōshin hiroku, jōkan,” in NRJSS, vol. 3, 212–218. The passing reference to “Western learning” may refer to notions of explosions under the earth caused by electricity, gunpowder, or other combustible materials. See chapter 6 for further discussion.
  • [2] Kojima, Jishinkō, first page face in the section “Jishin no shirushi.” “Jishinkō,” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 590–591. See also Hashimoto, Jishingaku, 24, and Nihon gakushiin, Butsuri kagakushi, 563.
  • [3] Kojima, Jishinkō, page faces 6–10 in the second section. “Jishinkō,” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 592. See also Hashimoto, Jishingaku, 25, Nihon gakushiin, Butsuri kagakushi, 564–565, and Miki, Kyōto daijishin, 60–66.
  • [4] FN, 531 and SGS, vol. 2 (ge), 951–952.
  • [5] FN, 556.
  • [6] }} In 1855, the tale spread widely and resulted in the design of several warning devices. Most famous is a sketch of an earthquake alarm clock (jishinkei) that theoretically might provide brief advance warning. A magnet held a small metal weight above the ground. Soon before an earthquake struck, the magnet would lose its power, thus releasing the weight, which was attached to a string. The string wound around a wheel that controlled a metal ringer. If all went well, the bell would ring several times, giving anyone in hearing range warning to prepare for an earthquake.{{FN, 556, and AKS, vol. 3, 19–20. See also Arakawa, Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 191–192; Hashimoto, Jishingaku, 30–31; Usami, “Kaisetsu,” 43–45; Clancey, Earthquake Nation, 153; and Tsuji Yoshinobu, Sennen shinsai: Kurikaesu jishin to tsunami no rekishi ni manabu (Daiyamondo sha, 2011), 93–95.
  • [7] According to Ikeya, the loss of magnetism in the stone “led to the immediate construction of an earthquake prediction apparatus.” He claims to have constructed a working replica in his laboratory based on the drawing in Ansei kenmonshi. Ikeya, Earthquakes and Animals, 15. See also Yamanaka et al., “Earthquake Precursors,” 204, 205.
  • [8] Tōkyō kagaku hakubutsukan, ed., Edo jidai no kagaku (Meicho kankōkai, 1980, originally published 1934), 257–258.
  • [9] Murayama Masataka, Shinden kōsetsu (1856), in Edo josei bunko, vol. 49 (Ōzorasha, 1994, no pagination). See also Tōkyō kagaku hakubutsukan, Edo Jidai no kagaku, 268.
  • [10] Hashimoto, Jishingaku, 20–21.
  • [11] AKS, vol. 1, approximately full page 15 of text after the table of contents. See also Arakawa, Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 121.
  • [12] Miyata Noboru, “Toshi minzokugaku kara mita namazu shinkō,” in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 24–33, and Miyata Noboru, Kinsei no hayarigami (Hyōronsha, 1972), 158–164.
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