Ominous Associations

An entry in Fujiokaya Diary four days after the main shock describes the dream of a Hongō resident named Shōgorō. He made his living as a gardener and his wife sold cooked potatoes. On the night of the sixth day, three men dressed like warriors came to buy potatoes, but instead of paying in copper cash they handed over a gold coin. Suspicious, Shōgorō refused to accept it, which prompted them to hand over a wooden tag. After Shōgorō refused to accept the tag, they became angry, dragged him through several city blocks, and pushed him into a large hole in the earth. There, Shōgōro encountered eight or nine “large men.” They turned to him and showed Shōgorō that the tag read, “Great Earthquake in Shinano”—that is, the Zenkōji earthquake of 1847. The men explained that they were on a mission of “world renewal” (yonaoshi), to assist good people and slay those who are evil. They told Shōgorō not to worry, but they warned that they would cause an earthquake each day until their work was finished. At that point, Shōgorō awoke from his dream in a temporary shelter with his wife and child.[1] The men of supernatural strength Shōgorō encountered in his dream were typical of the mythical, heroic figures commonly imagined to have precipitated past riots or mass protests. These men, personifications of past earthquakes, revealed to Shōgorō the two possibilities inherent in their rectifying project: wealth in the form of a gold coin, or destruction represented by the most dramatic and deadly earthquake of the recent past, Zenkōji. What distinguishes the vision of yonaoshi expressed in this tale was its potential for deadly violence and the threat that such violence would continue into the future.

Revenge of the Earthquake Gang

Although the literal impression conveyed by the compound yo (society, the world) plus naoshi (renewal, correction, or rectification) might suggest revolutionary goals, typical Tokugawa-era world renewal events were limited in both their objectives and levels of violence. Stephen Vlastos' summary of the 1868 yonaoshi uprisings in Aizu would apply to most other such events during the previous century and a half: “There were precise limits to 'world rectification.' It was a revolt by small cultivators and the poorer members of the village community against high-status peasants. They did not directly question their relationship to the state. Their concerns were local and not national, so that the peasants who sacked village officials and convened popular assemblies also appealed to the Meiji government for benevolence.”[2] Similarly, as we have seen, most characterizations of the Ansei Edo earthquake as world renewal were based on a local redistribution of wealth, a forcible cracking open of the storehouses of the rich. Human actors carrying out forcible redistributions of wealth or demanding redress of grievances were constrained in their violence, usually limiting their destruction to property they perceived as having been unjustly acquired.[3] Earthquakes, however, represented a serious escalation of world renewal violence because the shaking earth was free to mete out the death penalty.

The print Catfish Revenge (Namazu no adauchi) features a masterless warrior catfish named Shindōsai (Shaking purification), described as resembling a warrior more than six shaku (roughly two meters) in height and having a strange body and face. Shindōsai explains that he and his associates comprise the “earthquake gang” (jishinban). The name of the gang is a play on Jishinban, a neighborhood-based townsperson patrol in Edo and Osaka that combined security and fire-fighting duties. This earthquake gang has been shaking up Japan from one end to the other, starting with Zenkōji. The stated reason was that people have been grilling and eating their catfish brethren. He and his gang killed many in Mino, Ōmi, Kyoto, and Osaka, but still people's hearts are not good. The gang has now arrived in Edo, via Yamato. The rogue catfish then goes into greater geographic detail: “We shook up Yamato, Kawachi, Kii, Izumi, Iga, and Ise, then followed the Tōkaidō to Izu and shook up Shimoda [Ansei Tōkai]. We rested there briefly and then returned to the three provinces of Suruga, Tōtomi, and Owari [Ansei Nankai]. Last month we got as far as Yoshiwara, and now we are here. If you do not give in to our demands, we will shake you to death.” The dialogue ends ominously by suggesting that when Kashima gets back from Izumo, the earthquake gang will escape to the northern provinces.[4] To many observers in Edo, Zenkōji was the first step in a larger process of cosmically ordained shakeups and change, which they feared might still be in progress. This print does not use the term yonaoshi, but the name of the gang leader implies religious purification. The tale in the print, of course, closely resembles that of the gardener Shōgorō's encounter with a similar earthquake gang.

The route this gang traveled, of course, followed recent past earthquakes. The gang's violent nature may also reflect another recent development: increasing levels of violence in the countryside. Although this phenomenon became especially apparent during the 1860s, the process was well under way by 1855. Beginning in 1804, the bakufu began issuing injunctions against commoners practicing the martial arts, but in Musashi near Edo in the 1850s nearly 80 percent of the members of the local fencing school were commoners. While on the one hand attempting to prohibit commoners from acting like samurai, the bakufu increasingly relied on them for police and militia duties. The result was that “the shogunate's claims to monopolize the legitimate use of violence were being undermined from within and without during the final years of the early modern era.”[5] The portrayal of the recent pattern of earthquakes as a violent gang of outlaws may well have been a reflection of the rising tide of violence in society at that time. In any case, it raised the menacing possibility that the violent upheavals of the past eight years were part of a larger, ongoing process.

  • [1] FN, 554. See also Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, 31–32. The name Sōgorō is surely significant, owing to the fame of Sakura Sōgorō, a seventeenth-century martyr who by the nineteenth century “had become the patron saint of protest.” Moreover, Sōgorō had become especially popular in Edo after his story appeared on the Kabuki stage in 1851. See Anne Walthall, ed., trans., Peasant Uprisings in Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 35–75, esp. 37.
  • [2] Stephen Vlastos, Peasant Protests and Uprisings in Tokugawa Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 153.
  • [3] When the Tokugawa period ended, so did these traditional restraints on violence. Early Meiji period social protests often turned deadly. See, for example, David L. Howell, Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), esp. 89–109.
  • [4] Print #19 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 248–249.
  • [5] Howell, Geographies of Identity, 100–101.
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