Webs of Associations

The examples of Shōgorō's dream, the earthquake gang, and many other accounts reveal an awareness of recent earthquakes constituting a meaningful pattern. Zenkōji was most prominent by far. Significantly, although the Zenkōji disaster was known in Edo in 1847, its psychological impact at the time was minimal. The disaster produced little more than a tasteless senryū verse lauding Zenkōji in Shinano as a place that provides three kinds of funerals: fire, water, and earth.[1] After the tenth month of 1855, however, Zenkōji suddenly loomed large. A catfish print entitled Edo Catfish and Shinano Catfish (Edo namazu to Shinshū namazu), for example, features a mob attacking two giant menacing catfish, one with “Edo” on its forehead and the other “Shinano.”[2] One implication of this sudden interest in recent earthquakes was a realization that society was undergoing profound changes, which residents of Edo abruptly deduced had been in progress since 1847 or possibly 1830.[3]

The Ansei Edo earthquake changed perceptions of recent history. In this connection, one of the Ansei Chronicle authors wrote that the elderly possess the most penetrating understanding of society because they have witnessed the major events of the past thirty or so years. He then offered a list of the sixteen most significant recent events. The list starts in 1829 with the first issue of issugin, silver coins worth approximately one-sixteenth of a ryō. These coins were reissued in 1853 in connection with the construction of the offshore artillery batteries. Five items are about issues of new currency, one explains the Tenpō famine of the 1830s, one describes the Tenpō reforms as eliminating unauthorized theaters, brothels, and the trade guilds, and one entry for 1838 describes a severe rice shortage. The shogunal visit to Nikkō, a great Edo flood in 1846, the opportunity to hunt deer for a fee, severe lightning damage, and the Ansei Edo earthquake each constitute an entry. Visits by U.S. and British ships are listed in 1852, and the visit of a Russian ship to Osaka in 1854 is another entry, along with the opening up of Hokkaido. Not surprisingly, economic matters predominate, but visits by foreign ships are also prominent—all in the context of discussing the 1855 earthquake. The list of significant recent events ends with the author commenting that he is fortunate to have been born in an age of peace and to have been able to see such marvels as foreign people and the building of Western-style steamships, cannon, and other devices. He characterizes the current earthquake as a momentary pain (ku) that will lead to greater enjoyment (raku).[4]

Whether this optimistic view of the recent past was typical of the majority of townspeople is hard to say, but if the catfish prints and popular literature are reasonably representative, many of Edo's residents shared it. Viewed relatively optimistically, Japan was in the midst of an unprecedented period of change. While this change entailed some terrifying or painful aspects, it was also ushering in a fascinating new age of potential opportunity. The plasterer-referee's words in the catfish print featuring the neck tug-of-war with Perry are less enthusiastic. In that view, although things have worked out reasonably well until now, he demands an end to unexpected shakeups in the future. Shōgorō's dream and the print featuring the violent earthquake gang represent the dark side of possibilities—namely, punitive death and destruction extending into the future with no promise of benefits. While differing in degrees of optimism, all of these views assumed that the Ansei Edo earthquake was part of a larger process of major change sweeping through Japan, change that was unlikely to end with the shakeup of the shogun's capital.

Linking the earthquake with other recent earthquakes, disasters, and political developments was not limited to townspeople. Warriors thought in similar terms, though they often selected different events to make their case. Bakufu retainers sometimes reflected on the resource drain that recent events had imposed on the shogunate. Consider a letter from bannerman Tsuchiya Kyūba in the seventh month of 1856. It begins by stating that in recent years the arrival of foreign ships has resulted in many expenses and activities. Next, he mentions the fire (in 1854) that destroyed the imperial palace. After that, he remarks on the great destruction caused by the recent earthquake. He also explains that several rivers in the Kantō region have recently flooded, causing extensive damage. Kyūba says he expects that the bakufu will provide assistance in solving these problems but that all the repairs seem like a herculean task, especially with so much earthquake damage to the Edo mansions.[5] Like many throughout society, the earthquake prompted Kyūba to bring together recent events that he regarded as significant or meaningful, in his case with a worrisome outlook.

  • [1] Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, 18.
  • [2] Print #45 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 6–7, 266–267. This print is also known as Mizugami no tsuge. To view the relevant half of it, see http://metro2 .tokyo.opac.jp/tml/tpic/imagedata/toritsu/ukiyoe/0C/0277-C004(02).jpg.
  • [3] Several catfish prints feature groups of small catfish representing recent past earthquakes. Some go back only to Zenkōji, and others include Zenkōji but go back as far as Kyoto. See, for example, prints #37 and #76 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 110, 262, 292.
  • [4] AKS, vol. 3, 15. See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 183, 186–187, and Kitahara, Jishin no shakaishi, 173–176.
  • [5] “Gojōsho,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 549.
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