You might have noticed an unusual sight while traveling along Japan’s main roads: signs depicting an exaggerated image of a catfish. These peculiar symbols serve as warnings that these highways could be closed in the event of a major earthquake.

Why the Catfish?

In Japanese mythology, a colossal catfish named Namazu is believed to reside beneath Japan’s surface, causing earthquakes with its powerful movements. Legend has it that Namazu reacts to smaller tremors by thrashing about, akin to the behavior of real catfish. This mythological creature has become a ubiquitous symbol in earthquake prevention, featured in popular apps like Yurekuru Call.

Residing primarily in freshwater habitats, catfish are generally harmless creatures. However, in ancient Japanese mythology, these seemingly innocuous fish held a far more ominous reputation.

Following the devastating Great Ansei earthquake of 1855, which ravaged Edo with a magnitude of 7.0 and claimed thousands of lives, a belief swiftly emerged that giant catfish were to blame for the catastrophe. In the aftermath, a new genre of color woodblock prints known as namazu-e, or catfish pictures, flooded the streets, offering promises of protection from future earthquakes if affixed to household ceilings.

According to Japanese mythology, Namazu dwelled in subterranean caverns beneath Japan, restrained by the thunder god Kashima with a massive rock, the kaname-ishi. When Kashima momentarily departed, leaving the god of fishing and commerce, Ebisu, in charge, disaster ensued. Neglecting his duty, Ebisu slumbered, allowing the catfish to thrash freely against the earth’s underbelly, unleashing catastrophic earthquakes.

The Namazu-e

Despite the widespread fear instilled by catfish in the wake of the earthquake, certain segments of society, particularly the working class, also came to revere them. Satirical woodblock prints, known as namazu-e, depicted a wide array of scenes, often portraying a deity subduing the earthquake-causing catfish beneath a sword or the kanameishi stone. While the creature is referred to as a catfish in text, the illustrations may resemble a dragon-serpent.

Despite being blamed for the disaster, the Namazu was ironically revered as a yonaoshi daimyōjin, or god of “world rectification”. This designation reflected public sentiment, portraying the catfish as an avenger of social injustice. The earthquake’s aftermath saw a symbolic redistribution of wealth, with the rich losing their hoarded treasures, which were then scattered and shared among the populace. The images often depict large gold coins, symbolizing this redistribution and the resulting job opportunities that fueled the rebuilding efforts.

One notable print features a jingle with the refrain “yo-naoshi, yo-naoshi, tate-naoshi,” meaning “world-fixing, world-fixing, re-building”, explicitly linking the Namazu to the concept of social and economic reconstruction.

Even today, depictions of the colossal catfish remain prevalent across Japan. Adorning signs suspended above main roads, a charmingly cute rendition of the namazu serves as a reminder that these highways will be sealed off in the event of a major earthquake, ensuring the swift passage of emergency services. It’s a delightful testament to the enduring legacy of this obscure piece of Japanese mythology, as well as a gentle warning of the potentially dire consequences of neglecting responsibilities.