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Anxiety in the Divine land

Perry and the Earthquake

Matthew Perry's fleet arrived in July 1853 and stayed for slightly over one month. He returned with a larger fleet in February 1854 and signed the Treaty of Kanagawa at the end of March. When word of the initial visit reached the imperial court, it sponsored a series of formal prayers at Ise and the other Twenty-Two Shrines that enjoyed at least nominal imperial court sponsorship. The final prayer, offered at all the shrines, called on the deities to keep the “land of deities” free from pollution and harm, to bring peace to the people and the national essence (kokutai), and to keep the realm prosperous and militarily strong.[1] The townspeople of Edo became aware of this attempt to mobilize the cosmic forces, and not all of them regarded it as useful. One comic verse that circulated in Edo read, “The divine wind was far in the past! / Some flattery for the kami and buddhas of ancient times.”[2] The verse points out the absurdity of the imperial court relying on ancient practices to deal with contemporary problems. Even if court prayers conjured up a divine wind (kamikaze) at the time of the Mongol incursions during the thirteenth century, some last-minute flattery of the deities would hardly be effective now. One favorite theme of comic verses after Perry's arrival was to use plays on words in connection with de facto bakufu head Abe Masahiro, more commonly known by his ceremonial title, Lord of Ise (Ise no kami), a homonym for “deity of Ise” (Amaterasu). “Abe” also fit into the word abekobe, meaning opposite or upside-down. One example is, “Quite the opposite (abekobe) of the Mongol incursions of old / The divine wind of Ise kicks up no wind or waves,” with the use of Chinese characters and kana script optimized to bring out the double meaning of “Lord of Ise” and “Kami-wind of Ise.”[3] Verses like this one, while poking fun at the historical irony of the peaceful, welcoming stance adopted by the Lord (kami) of Ise in the face of a foreign military fleet, do not express a clear political stance. Some did. For example, “Because there is no divine wind from Ise these days / May the former Mito-sama arise.”[4] This verse advocates the policy of expulsion and expresses hope that the deposed daimyō Mito Nariaki's voice will again influence bakufu leaders. It was known at this time that bakufu officials were consulting with Nariaki. Explicitly or implicitly informing these comic verses and many others like them was the notion of Japan as a shinkoku, a country of kami and buddhas. Popular views regarding Perry and foreign policy ranged from chauvinistic advocacy of expulsion to welcoming a broadening of foreign contacts. Most townspeople, however, did not hold strong opinions either way. They often observed events with a mixture of curiosity and mild apprehension. The apprehension came from the possibility that warfare might break out. This possibility was also a source of profits, as one comic verse, a parody of Emperor Tenji's poem that begins the Hyakunin isshu (Hundred people, hundred verses) collection, points out: “The merchant houses sell military and equestrian goods / The money of which we are so fond rains down.”[5] Some comic verses expressed a sense of bemused observation. For example, “Paying no heed to the curse [tatari] of the divine wind of Ise / America attaches itself to abekobe,” with the last word meaning both an upside-down situation and Abe Masahiro.[6]

Looking more closely at popular rhetoric in connection with Perry's visits, we find a sudden increase in terms and concepts loosely connected with the idea of Japan as shinkoku. The emperor personally did not appear in this discourse, almost certainly because he was an abstraction. However, the imperial court, the Ise Shrines, divine wind, and the Mongol incursions were on the lips of many townspeople. Several comic verses, for example, took the form of imperial proclamations.[7] The imperial court, bakufu, and the American sailors all became grist for the mill of irreverent parody. A few decades later, such comic treatment of the imperial court would become a crime, but in the Bakumatsu era of the 1850s and 1860s, the imperial institution possessed nowhere near the awesome social stature it would acquire in the modern era.[8]

Some observers in Edo linked Perry's arrival with recent events. In the summer of 1853, most parts of Japan were experiencing a drought severe enough to produce state-sponsored prayers for rain at major shrines and temples. One comic verse posits a causal link between the “hairy foreigners” and a “mountain of problems,” and it features the word amerika, which could be read both as “America” and as “rainfall.” With Perry's visits having made such a strong impact on all levels of society, it is not surprising that a major earthquake shaking Edo about a year and a half after the Treaty of Kanagawa would seem anything but random. While the precise meaning of the earthquake might be hard to decipher, many denizens of Edo assumed it must somehow be connected with Perry's visits and perhaps even other events.

One interesting feature of the recollection and listing of past earthquakes in 1855 is that the vast majority of accounts focused only on Japan. Of the major earthquake literature, only Ansei Chronicle (Ansei kenmonshi) takes up the previously common rhetorical technique of invoking China, introducing the three-volume work by explaining that even the ancient sage kings Yao, Shun, and Tang (first Shang king) faced natural disasters.[9]Ansei Chronicle does not dwell at any length on China, nor does it mention specific earthquakes. In Edo of 1855, China was an abstraction, a land far across the sea at the outer limits of the imagination of most readers. Matthew Perry and his “black ships” eclipsed China as the foreign land in the forefront of the popular imagination. The black ships became connected with the earthquake as part of a broader process of imbuing the recent past with new meaning. Indeed, Fujiokaya Diary reports the point of view that because Edo has never experienced such a severe earthquake, the shaking is surely connected with the arrival of the American fleet and presages warfare in the future.[10] Perry and his black ships make several appearances in the catfish prints, sometimes as a relatively sinister presence, sometimes as a desirable presence.

Tension between Japan and the United States is evident in a print featuring Matthew Perry and the earthquake catfish in the midst of a neck-toneck tug-of-war.[11] Although there is no obvious victor, the catfish seems to be getting the upper hand as Perry lurches forward slightly, and the referee, a plasterer, points with his trowel toward the catfish. The two are at political odds, and the catfish begins a lengthy dialogue: “You stupid Americans have been making fun of us Japanese for the past two or three years. You have come and pushed us around too much. . . . Stop this useless talk of trade; we don't need it. We are sick of hearing the noisy calls of the candy sellers. Since we don't need you, hurry up and put your back to us. Fix your rudder and sail away at once.”[12] Perry's reply emphasizes an idealized view of his country's political and social organization: “What are you talking about, you stupid catfish! Mine is the country of benevolence and compassion. No matter what a person does, even if he is a laborer or a hunter, if he is benevolent he can become king.” The theoretical possibility that commoners in the United States might become heads of state was fascinating to many Japanese at this time. The passage above ends with an admission by Perry of America's sole problem: a lack of sufficient food. It is for this reason that Perry has come to Japan seeking trade.

The response by the catfish reiterates the view of America as a land characterized by its mode of government and contrasts it with Japan's distinctive quality: “Shut up Perry. No matter how often you brag that your federation is a country of benevolence, if you don't have food you must be poor. If America had the Buddha or the gods, then you would have a good harvest of the five grains. But since you don't, you have to depend on piracy and steal your food. Knowing this, the gods of our country have gathered together and have caused a divine wind to blow and sink your ships and those of the Russians. For sure in the eleventh month of last year the gods struck out against your rudeness.” Here we see yet another clear articulation of Japan as a land characterized by the presence of benevolent deities, who provide bountiful harvests—typical rhetoric we have seen in connection with other early modern earthquakes. Moreover, the print regards both the Ansei Tōkai and Ansei Edo earthquakes as attempts by these deities to shake off the foreign presence. Abe Yasunari points out that just as some catfish prints characterized the Kashima deity as inadequate to deal with the current crisis and thus in need of augmentation from outside deities, the view in this print is similar. The only force that might balance the power of Perry and the new foreigners was the collective body of the deities of Japan. Significantly, the dialogue has effectively extended the earthquake in Edo to encompass Japan as a whole.[13]

The dialogue continues with Perry invoking the American spirit: “You catfish! It is funny for you to speak like that, making up your own reasoning. Despite the fact that men can usually hold you down with a gourd, on the fourth day of the eleventh month you tried to send us away by shaking Shimazu and Numazu, but our American spirit remained unmoved.” The printmaker portrays Perry as aware of the Ansei Tōkai earthquake, and the earlier earthquake here becomes an integral part of a larger process of change. It is also significant that there is no mention in this dialogue of government in Japan. The implied contrast is between an aggressive America with an effective government and a Japan whose government is not necessarily effective and whose people must therefore turn to the deities. This dialogue adumbrated both the idea of Japan as an imagined community extending beyond Edo and the reliance of this community on divine intervention.

The print, however, stops well short of advocating any further shakeup of society. The plasterer referee gets in the last words: “Both of you be quiet . . . look with your eyes and see the cracks in the warehouses. We are asked to patch up these cracks and holes, asked over and over again; we are asked to prop up the broken-down walls; we are known for our fine work with the trowel. Everyone admires our work. We are thankful this time for the earthquake, but both of you try to resolve your differences without causing us any more trouble. We don't want to see it; stop it!” The plasterer's view here was probably typical of many townspeople. For the most part, they were happy with the immediate post-earthquake situation, although the process of arriving at that point had been tumultuous, terrifying, and, for some, deadly. So, while thankful for the recent earthquake, many townspeople hoped for an end to major upheavals in the near future. We know from hindsight, of course, that upheavals were just beginning.

Just as the threat of war from Perry's arrival was an opportunity for some townspeople to profit, so too was the earthquake. Several catfish prints feature a deity of good fortune, Daikoku (or Daikokuten), who bestows wealth by means of a magic mallet.[14] Daikoku's name means “Big Black,” and, of course, there was another “big black” on the minds of many of Edo's residents—the black ships. The giant earthquake catfish in the 1855 prints were also black. Daikoku the deity, therefore, connected two other “big blacks”: Perry's steamships and the earthquake catfish. In the print Giant Catfish Shaking Great Edo (Ōnamazu Edo no furui), a giant catfish appears to have partially morphed into a whale (fig. 10). It is spouting money, but not from where a whale's blowhole would be. Instead, the coins spout from the location of the smokestack on steamships, making the whale-catfish

Figure 10 Giant Catfish Shaking Great Edo (Onamazu Edo no furui, 1855).

Courtesy of the National Diet Library, Japan ( info:ndljp/pid/1302035). resemble one of the black ships. Moreover, the text of an accompanying song includes a play on words that links the homonyms “great country” (daikoku) with “Big Black” (Daikoku). Standing on shore, people beckon the whale-catfish-steamship to come closer. This print appears to portray Perry's visits and the trade likely to result therefrom in a generally favorable light.[15]

Abe Yasunari, however, points out an ambiguity concerning the black ships in this print. The short song reads, “The earth of the great country moves, piling up a mountain of treasure in the midst of the city.” “The earth of the great country” is daikoku no tsuchi, which is a homonym for “the mallet of Daikoku.” Why, Abe asks, have interpreters of catfish prints not considered taking the song at its face value, with Japan as the “great country”? The song is written in cursive script, angled into the spout of coins coming out of the creature, and it is written upside down. The only way to read the song easily is to turn the print upside down. Doing so reveals a different landscape. What was originally the oddly red sky looks like earth in the new perspective, and the spout of coins becomes a mountain of treasure. Furthermore, the whole scene now seems focused on “this” shore—that is, on Japan. Abe does not insist that the upside-down reading is the only correct one but rather that it reveals an additional possibility: that Japan might be or become wealthy and great. Here, the term “great country” potentially refers both to the United States and to an optimistic vision of Japan's future, each linked by the figure of Daikoku, the deity of wealth.[16]

  • [1] Nagura Tetsuzō, Fūshigan ishin henkaku: Minshū wa tennō o dō miteita ka (Kōsō shobō, 2004), 189–191.
  • [2] Quoted in Nagura, Fūshigan ishin henkaku, 193. The verse is loosely based on Haykunin isshu 17 ( hyakua.html).
  • [3] Quoted in Nagura, Fūshigan ishin henkaku, 180.
  • [4] Ibid., 185.
  • [5] Ibid., 165.
  • [6] Ibid., 186.
  • [7] Nagura, Fūshigan ishin henkaku, 161–163.
  • [8] For example, in 1862 broadside prints criticized the emperor for sacrificing his daughter, Princess Kazunomiya, to political expediency. See Nagura Tetsuzō, Etoki bakumatsu fūshiga to tennō (Kashiwa shobō, 2007), 14–15.
  • [9] AKS, vol. 1, 1. See also Arakawa Hidetoshi, ed., Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi: Ansei kenmonroku, Ansei kenmonshi, Ansei fūbunshū (Kyōikusha, 1982), 99.
  • [10] FN, 536.
  • [11] Print #142 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 236, 327–328. To view this image, see–010/00001.jpg.
  • [12] Translation of the text of this print is found in Peter Duus, The Japanese Discovery of America: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford Books, 1997), 110, 112, and in M. William Steele, Alternative Narratives in Japanese History (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 16–17.
  • [13] Abe, “Amaterasu,” 32–35.
  • [14] For example, see #126 and #127 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 110, 231, 319–320.
  • [15] Print #131 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 8, 321. To view this print, see Figure 10.
  • [16] Abe, “Amaterasu,” 29–32. Further support for the possible reading of “great country” as Japan would be that the text of several other prints with no connection to the black ships or foreigners, begins with “The soil of the great country moves” (daikoku no tsuchi . . . ), a verbatim match with the song. See, for example, print #191 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 355.
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