massive earthquake struck Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and killed over 10,000 people. At the time, the earthquake was widely blamed on Namazu, the monster catfish and water deity that, according to legend, lives in the waters underneath Japan. Out of the rubble of Edo arose a short-lived art genre that ridiculed the Tokugawa government and the upper strata of Japanese society and challenged the Tokugawa government's censorship laws. This art genre was known as Namazu-e.
"What/who is Namazu," you ask? Namazu is one of the many monsters (or 'yōkai') of ancient Japanese legends. According to the legend, Namazu is restrained by the Shinto god Kashima, who keeps a stone on top of him. However, when Kashima is not looking, Namazu will roll around or wiggle his tail, causing the nation's violent earthquakes. The legend of Namazu is believed to have its origins in the ancient Chinese and Japanese belief that earthquakes were caused by dragons or dragon-snakes living underground. Dragons were also worshipped as a water deity by the Chinese and Japanese people and they associated it with flooding and heavy rains.
Namazu-e prints were a genre of woodcut prints, or ukiyo-e (浮世絵) that were popular for two months in 1855-56 after the earthquake. The first prints went into publication a mere two days after the earthquake. During the period of November 1855-January 1856, over 400 namazu-e prints were published and distributed around Edo. Namazu-e prints satirized the people who profited from the Ansei Edo Earthquake, and offered a little bit of entertainment and humor to the quake-stricken city. They also depicted traditional Shinto beliefs about the disaster, promised protection from future earthquakes, and even have a connection with a major event in both Japanese and American histories. Nearly all of these paintings were painted anonymously and could be found throughout Edo during this disaster.
First and foremost, many Namazu-e prints showed all the citizens of Edo coming together to defeat Namazu and chase him out of their city. Usually these prints showed Kashima subduing Namazu or in pursuit of the giant catfish. These prints were meant to inspire the people to keep moving and rebuild the great city of Edo.
Namazu-e also satirized the profiteers who made a fortune from the disaster, such as the construction workers, lumber merchants, blacksmiths, newspaper editors, celebrities, and so on. These people are shown standing around watching and cheering Namazu on while the ordinary people suffer and die. Many people blamed the quake on the greed of the profiteers of Edo, and the Tokugawa bureaucracy in particular. They believed it was punishment for their excessive greed. Even before the quake, corruption had been rampant. Prices of everyday items were getting higher and merchants were deliberately hoarding items from store shelves to induce an artificial shortage of goods. When the quake struck Edo, they saw the perfect opportunity to make a fortune knocking. After the quake, a great number of these people quickly rebuilt their homes and re-opened their businesses with their inexhaustible supply of money.
Apart from Namazu himself, another deity who was blamed for the quake was Ebisu, the Shinto god of fishing and commerce. According to legend, Namazu is restrained by the Shinto god Kashima, who keeps a stone on top of him. However, when Kashima is not looking, Namazu will roll around or wiggle his tail, causing the nation's violent earthquakes. Ebisu was said to have temporarily taken over the job of guarding Namazu while Kashima was away and fell asleep on the job. While he was asleep, Namazu got away and caused massive destruction. The theme of a sleeping Ebisu recurs throughout many of these prints.
Another underlying theme in Namazu-e was the arrivial of U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet of black steamships two years earlier to negotiate a trade treaty on behalf of President Millard Fillmore. These trade negotiations began the opening up of Japan. The fleet of black steamships terrified the people of Japan greatly, both literally and emotionally. Most Japanese had never seen a steamship before and a whole fleet of them in Japan's harbors was terrifying to see. The threat of war shook up the Tokugawa shogunate and the samurai, whose weaponry and tactics were outdated at this point in time and were no match against the advanced weapons of Perry's fleet. Also, pressure and the threat of possible military action caused uncertainty in Japan and gave the merchants an excuse to keep upping their prices.
Many prints and illustrations of Perry's ships from this time depicted the ships as bearing a strong resemblance to Namazu, and when the Edo earthquake struck in 1855, Commodore Perry was still fresh on the minds of the people of Edo. In many namazu-e prints, Namazu bears a resemblance to Perry's steamships. The underlying message was very clear: Perry and his fleet were Namazus who were "rectifying" Japan and ushering in an era of change.
Naturally, it wasn't long before the Tokugawa shogunate caught wind of this genre and decided that they couldn't have the people mocking the government and breaking its strict censorship laws. In January 1856, the Tokugawa shogunate officially banned Namazu-e prints from production. Since a lot of Namazu-e prints were one-of-a-kind prints made by relatively unknown local artists, many of them vanished forever.
One legacy of Namazu-e is that it was a "protest art". It emerged at a time when social discontent was very high in Japan and protests had been becoming more and more common over the decades. The Ansi-Edo earthquake in general brought all this discontent and anger out to the surface, and Namazu-e was the perfect way to express it.
Namazu-e was a very small genre of Japanese art that existed for only a very short period of time in the Edo area. It depicted and satirized the huge divide between rich and poor that existed in Edo society, the changes that were brewing in Japan underneath the surface of Edo society, and the changes that were soon to come. Furtthermore, Namazu-e prints gave the people of Edo a sense of safety and security and gave them a reason to smile and laugh. In this sense, Namazu-e was a two-sided art genre.
For more info about Namazu-e, check out:
-http://pinktentacle.com/2011/04/namazu-e-earthquake-catfish-prints/ (Blog post from Pink Tentacle about Namazu-e. Includes a gallery of Namazu-e prints and background info on these prints.)
-http://shinku.nichibun.ac.jp/namazu/ichiran.php (A very comprehensive gallery of Namazu-e. Japanese language only.)
-http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/g/j/gjs4/Shaking_Up_Japan.pdf (Paper about Namazu-e by Gregory Smits.)