Namazu-e (鯰絵)

Namazu-e is a general name for nishiki-e (multicolored ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints)) with catfish (namazu, in Japanese) as its subject published in Japan during the Edo period. It is based on folk beliefs that earthquakes are caused by underground activities of a big catfish. After the big earthquake of the Ansei era occurred on November 11, 1855, a large quantity of namazu-e were published. Unless otherwise specifically noted, the big earthquake of Ansei era is referred to as 'earthquake' in this article.


Over 250 versions of namazu-e have been confirmed so far and it is thought that far more versions of namazu-e were actually published. At that time, books and ukiyo-e were censored by the Edo shogunate, but almost all namazu-e were illegally published without applying for permission and many of them do not have signatures of the creator or painter to avoid regulation. Namazu-e publication began immediately after the earthquake, spread rapidly among the common people as a gofu (talisman) to protect their lives and to remove anxiety and many works were made within a two month period until the fad subsided.

Tenpo Reforms implemented by the shogunate in the first half of the 1840s encouraged simplicity and frugality and ukiyo-e became the target of regulation because it was deemed as a luxury item. Publishing ornate yakusha-e (prints of kabuki actors) and bijinga (type of ukiyo-e portraying beautiful women) were strictly restricted and painters were obliged to shift to landscape drawings, satirical drawings or works with a lesser number of colors. One of the factors behind the issuing of many namazu-e was that the earthquake occurred just before a canceled November performance of kabuki which was to open the year's kabuki season was canceled and this caused damage to publishers who expected income from shibai-e (drawing kabuki as subject matter).

Types of namazu-e

Various compositions were used for namazu-e. Especially well-known types were in the form of kassen-e (picture of war) where common people punish a big catfish or a conflict between them is depicted. The tradition that Takemikazuchi, which is the enshrined deity of the Kashima-jingu Shrine (present Kashima City, Ibaraki Prefecture), seals in a big catfish with a keystone was widespread at that time, and it appeared rather often in namazu-e as a character to fight the catfish. Various works were produced using unique patterns in which a catfish apologized for causing the earthquake or a catfish was helping the restoration after the earthquake in compositions of so-called 'yonaosi namazu' (catfish reforming society). Because a large number of houses were destroyed and carpenters and lumber dealers earned a tremendous amount of profits thanks to a booming restoration economy after the earthquake, there ware also prints that satirized this and show carpenters and lumber dealers thanking a catfish. Comparisons of those who lost and those who gained by the earthquake were depicted in many variations and the emotions were expressed through the technique of 'sannin namayoi' (warai jogo (merry drinker), naki jogo (drinker who is easily provoked to crying) and okori jogo (irritable drinker).

Forerunners of namazu-e

As described above, namazu-e circulated after the earthquake were drawn in various motifs. However, they were not necessarily drawn with an original theme or composition. There are many that transformed known ukiyo-e and folk paintings before the earthquake into a parody or took in the folk culture that was fashionable at that time.


The popular belief that catfish cause big earthquakes had already been widespread by the middle of the Edo Period. In "Shibaraku" (Just a moment), which was one of kabuki's juhachiban (eighteen best plays of the Ichikawa family of kabuki actors), an akuyaku (villain's role) called 'namazu bozu' (namazu priest) appears, and there is a scene in which he puts on a bold front to the main character backed with an earthquake. There were some namazu-e with "Shibaraku" as its subject that were published after the Earthquake. A typical composition would be where the main character of "Shibaraku" holds the namazu bozu down with a keystone. Bringing the catfish under control with a keystone was originally a role of the Kashima Daimyojin (The Kashima Deity) and there was no scene like that in "Shibaraku" in kabuki, so the composition is judged as the combined features of both. In addition, other programs such as "Yowanasake Ukinano Yokogushi" and "Saya-ate" (The Scabbard Crossing) were used as the subject matter for namazu-e.

Otsu-e (Otsu paintings, named after the town of Otsu in Shiga Prefecture)

Otsu-e could be considered a forerunner of namazu-e. Otsu-e are a folk paintings featuring Otsu inn town with Buddhist paintings and a wide range secular paintings. The 'hyotan namazu' pokes fun at 'hyonenzu,' which is a national treasure painted by Josetsu, who was a painter/priest in the Muromachi period and this was one of the typical subject matters called 'Otsu-e jisshu' (ten types of Otsu-e). Hyonenzu were originally painted with a zen mondo (Zen riddle) on how to hold down a slippery catfish with a slick gourd and a picture in which a monkey is trying to hold down a catfish with a gourd was comically painted in Otsu-e. Among namazu-e after the earthquake, parodies of various Otsu-e themes such as fujimusume can be seen in addition to hyotan namazu.

Kawaraban (commercial news-sheet of the Edo period)

During the Edo period, information on damages caused by the earthquake and the status of restoration were transmitted to other districts by kawaraban. It is believed that the first appearance of catfish in kawaraban was for the Ise, Mino, and the Omi Earthquakes in 1819. This kawaraban was titled as "year 2 of the Bunsei era (1819), year of Tsuchinoto (16th year of the sexagenary cycle), ozumo (sumo wrestling) and it depicted a scene in which a personified catfish and a god sumo wrestling each other. With respect to the Zenkoji Earthquake in 1847 (May 7, 1847), a catfish appears in Kuniteru UTAGAWA's 'Sateha Shinshu Zenkoji' (Zenko-ji Temple in Shinano Province) and namazu-e were also published after the Odawara Earthquake in 1853 (March 11, 1853) and the Ansei Tokai Earthquake in the next year (December 23, 1854).

Social conditions and public morals in Edo

In Edo at that time, visits to the Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana) and so on, was widespread and the composition of folk paintings at that time influenced several namazu-e in which Kajima Daimyojin appear. Kubihiki (a tug of war between two persons with a loop of cord stretched around their necks) and janken (the game of 'paper stone and scissors') which were Ozashiki-Asobi (games with Geisha - Japanese professional female entertainer at drinking parties) in red light districts were used as themes and there is the example of 'November 11, 1855, the night of a big earthquake, namazu mondo' (literally, talk on catfish) in which Mathew Perry and a catfish play kubihiki. The shini-e (woodblock prints for commemoration issued as a memorial when a famous actor, etc. dies) of Danjuro ICHIKAWA (VIII), who was a kabuki actor and died in the previous year influenced the namazu-e titled 'Onamazu nochi no namayoi' (Drunk after the big catfish).


As described above, namazu-e based on various existing published materials reflected popular customs at that time. On the other hand, namazu-e itself influenced the satirical drawings of later ages. A well-known example is the hashika-e in 1862. Hashika-e is a kind of ukiyo-e, also called hoso-e, and acts as a talisman to prevent smallpox and, at the same time, it was a secular painting that depicted the situation of the public who were worried of the epidemic. Among a series of hashika-e painted at the time when measles prevailed during Edo in 1862, we see several works that borrowed the composition from namazu-e of seven years before. The basic one is where a big catfish in namazu-e is replaced with the god of measles, such as 'hashika nochino yojo' (care after measles) in comparison with 'sokuseki namazu hanashi' (quick talk on catfish) where people are beating a catfish in the drawing.


After the year of hashika-e in 1863, awate-e due to the Namamugi Incident and the Anglo-Satsuma War. In this year, in Yokohama, there was a warning bombardment by the British army against the shogunate and many of the public who were afraid of a full-scale attack suddenly evacuated from Edo to the countryside. Such situations were comically depicted in awate-e and tookideas from namazu-e composition as with hashika-e.