On 11 November 1855, a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed most of Japan’s capital city, Edo, the precursor of modern Tokyo. Roughly 7000 people were reported dead or injured, and the numbers rose in the days that followed. There were no newspapers published in the city – the shogun’s government forbade public comment on anything directly concerning the regime – but by the end of the year hundreds of woodblock broadsheets had appeared with stories and interpretations of the disaster. Among the surviving broadsheets one type stands out: colour woodblock prints depicting the earthquake as a catfish.
Since the 17th century, folklore had associated catfish with earthquakes. It was said that a giant catfish lay under a stone at the Kashima shrine, close to the easternmost point of Honshu, Japan’s main island (nearby present-day Narita Airport). The god of the shrine had the duty of holding the catfish down. When he neglected his job, the catfish would wake up and shake, causing earthquakes. The god of Kashima seems to have been peculiarly negligent around this time: an earthquake destroyed the castle in the city of Odawara in 1853, another struck near the imperial shrine of Ise in the summer of 1854, and two tsunamis caused thousands of deaths along the Pacific coast that autumn. These events occurred soon after the arrival of American gunships under Commodore Perry forced the shogunate to open its ports to trade, rocking a dynastic system that had maintained stability in Japan for 250 years. It is not surprising that many in Edo believed the gods had chosen this time to overturn the existing world and start things anew.
The first catfish prints appeared within two days of the earthquake. They depict the catfish in a wide range of guises, sometimes as big as a whale, sometimes human-sized and anthropomorphised. Despite its place in legend as the source of the destruction, the catfish was not uniformly presented as malevolent. In some prints, catfish rescued victims from ruined houses or helped in the reconstruction. Other prints were satirical, even though they were made at a time when the dead and injured weren’t fully accounted for and thousands of people were still without housing. I have been showing these pictures to students for years, interested in what they tell us about the period, but until the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on 11 March it had never occurred to me just how remarkable and strange to modern sensibilities this outburst of satirical humour in the face of disaster was.
The example reproduced here, ‘Mr Moneybags Launches Forth His Ship of Treasure’, employs a common motif: the suffering of elite merchants and the delight of working men. The man at the top is a wealthy miser: with the encouragement of a catfish, he is vomiting gold coins. Three men wearing the blue leggings, jackets and cloth headbands of craftsmen and builders scramble for the fallen money. The catfish lectures the miser: ‘Sir, you suffer now because you oppressed those beneath you in ordinary times. It would be well for you to change your ways and practise charity and virtue.’ Meanwhile, one of the labourers tells his mates: ‘Don’t be greedy. If you save too much and an earthquake comes you’ll regret it: better to go and spend it at the temporary brothels and keep it circulating.’ Destruction of property naturally hurt the haves more than the have-nots, and construction workers in particular stood to profit from the city’s rebuilding. Indeed, just as many occupations seem to have profited as suffered in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Another print depicted two groups of people standing on either side of a catfish, one labelled ‘those who laugh’ (a carpenter, a plasterer, a lumber merchant, a roofer, a blacksmith, a prostitute, a physician and a street-food vendor) and the other ‘those who weep’ (a teahouse proprietor, a seller of eels, a seller of luxury goods, a diamond dealer, an import merchant, musicians and entertainers). A city made entirely of wood, paper and clay could be rebuilt in a matter of weeks, and reconstruction provided work at good wages to a large segment of the urban population. When working men had spending money, street trades like prostitution and fast food profited too.