Deep in the forest surrounding the Kashima Jingu, one of the most important (for various reasons, religious as well as very practical) Shinto shrines of Japan and one that carries the designation “Jingu” denoting a connection to the Imperial family there is a sculpture that will certainly puzzle the casual observer: it is that of a severe-looking long-haired man with Chinese style beard and clothes, standing determinedly on the back of a giant catfish. Those who are even slightly familiar with Japanese semiotics of the last 200 years though will certainly recognize, if not the man, certainly the catfish: it is Namazu (鯰), the one “responsible” for the biggest natural challenge the Japanese have been facing since they first inhabited the outpost of Asia, the unexpected trembling of the earth. For the record, the man is Takemikazuchi O-Kami or Kashima Dai-myojin, the deity worshipped in the shrine and responsible for having Namazu under control so he won’t quiver, and make the whole country quiver with him.
The choice of the particular illustration is interesting: it points to a series of not particularly notable ukiyoe woodblock prints that circulated after the three big earthquakes which occurred between December 1854 and November 1855 and that functioned as political commentary for those politically and socially unrestful times. In half of them, Namazu is depicted as a force of destruction and in the other half as a “Yonaoshi Dai-myojin”, that is as a deity responsible for the reform of the world since the reconstruction works following the earthquakes brought a redistribution of wealth and particularly at the (literal) expense of the very wealthy merchants of Edo and Kansai. Some of them didn’t even miss some covert references to the other great event of the time, the arrival of the “Black Ships” or the American commodore Matthew Perry and the concerns about the future of both the shogun’s government and of Japan itself.
That period, the last days of the shogunate (usually called “bakumatsu”/幕末from “baku” coming from “bakufu”/幕府, i.e. the shogunate and “matsu” meaning “end” or “tip”) were so filled with events and people who made a mark in Japanese history that probably only very few are aware of the origins of the semiology of Namazu and his relationship to Takemikazuchi; the exponents of some classical martial arts (Kashima Jingu has a very old relationship to them and its deity is considered their patron) and the art historians of the Edo period are perhaps among those few who can make the connection. Still, the correlation between Namazu and earthquakes remains hardwired in the Japanese consciousness and is reintroduced every time a public agency or a private company uses the catfish for something related to this most enduring among natural threats.
At first glance, the identification of earthquakes with a fish, and particularly with one pictured in a relatively funny way, points to the later practice of creating a mascot for everything; from this viewpoint Namazu could be seen as one of the first “yuru-kyara” in Japanese history. At second, it is something entirely in accordance with the worldview of a people with an animistic religion. And at third, it is a natural reaction in the face of something as wild and devastating as the earthquake: using something as familiar as a fish to personify the particular whim of nature, Asians (because like many other things, this personification is also an import from the mainland) attempted to belittle the seriousness of the threat and, indirectly, appease the forces causing it. And they probably succeeded: anyone experiencing an earthquake in Japan will realize that the greatest sense of security comes from the calm reactions of the people every time Namazu manages to trick Takemikazuchi and flexes his enormous body.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.