Woodblock Prints Depicting a Giant Catfish: Reflection of Edo People’s Imagination (Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library)
Period Tuesday, July 13 –Sunday, September 5, 2021
Venue Special Exhibition Gallery A, National Museum of Japanese History

Adults: ¥600
college students: ¥250
* Free admission for High school age and below.

Hours 9:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m. (entrance closed at 4:30 p.m.)
* Open hours and days are subject to change.
Closed Mondays (When Monday is a national holiday, the Museum is closed the following Tuesday.)

Japan was hit by many earthquakes in the Edo period (1603-1867), especially late in the period, when there was a succession of large quakes. The Zenkōji Earthquake in 1847 drew much attention from those in Edo (Tokyo). In 1854, two large quakes, the Ansei Tokai Earthquake and the Ansei Nankai Earthquake, occurred one after another. Then on November 11, 1855, the Ansei Edo Earthquake caused devastating damage to the city of Edo. Shortly after this earthquake, various printed works appeared, such as “tile-block printing” broadsheets (kawaraban), which reported on or reacted to the damage. Among these, it is thought that more than 200 woodblock prints, today called Namazu-e, were issued, until they were banned by the authorities in December of the same year. Based on motifs of a mystical giant underground catfish, which at that time was believed to cause earthquakes, the Namazu-e dealt with a variety of subjects and ideas, reflecting a wide range of the people’s feelings, such as their fear of earthquakes, satirical attitudes to social conditions after the earthquake, and desire for social reforms. Through a collection of the roughly 200 pieces of Namazu-e archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library, this exhibition illustrates the strong imagination of the Edo people, who addressed the unprecedented damage caused by the earthquake with a brave spirit and sense of humor. It is shown for the first time in Japan.

A Catfish Startled by the Courtesan’s Haunting Beauty—Death and Resentment from the Earthquake (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

This is a parody of the famous scene in the kabuki play, Keisei Asamagatake, where the spirit of the courtesan Ōshū, who was Tomoenojō’s mistress, expresses her resentment at him. As he burns their written pledge of love, she emerges from the smoke. A catfish dressed like Tomoenojō is surprised by the ghost of the courtesan Ōshū, who suffered from the earthquake and died in the Yoshiwara red-light district. The tomoe in Tomoenojō refers to a comma-shaped heraldic design; and in this Namazu-e, the tomoe on the haori coat is designed with gourd cups.


Highlights of the Exhibition

  • How people explained the cause of the large earthquakes, and how they thought they might be prevented.
  • The brilliant skill in parodying the subjects of Ōtsu-e prints and kabuki scenes.
  • The esprit of the masses trying to overcome adversity with a sense of humor.
  • Their acutely satirical attitudes to social conditions, as revealed in the Namazu-e.
  • Clarification of the mechanism behind Namazu-e publication, which has not been well known before.

Vibrant World of Publishing: Disseminating Information

Through comprehensively presenting a wide range of publications of the era, this exhibition illustrates the context of the Namazu-e as part of post-quake phenomena. Such publications include the “tile-block printing” broadsheets that were rapidly sold shortly after the earthquake, maps showing burnt areas printed in single sheets,  brocade prints with motifs of the earthquake disaster, and The Ansei Era Disaster Record of Things Seen and Heard.

(2) Annual Winter Housecleaning (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

Under the guise of the annual year-end housecleaning by kabuki actors, this
color print in fact depicts people living as evacuees shortly after the earthquake.


Chapter 1
Gods Subduing Catfish: Pay Back for the Damage!

We present Namazu-e depicting quake-causing catfish and catfish-quelling deities.  Such divinities include the Kashima Deity with the sacred spirit rock (Kanameishi), the Ebisu God of Fortune, and the sacred white horse of the Ise Shrine.

(3) Happy for Restraining a Catfish on a Lucky Day (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

The Kashima Deity rules over giant catfish with the sacred spirit rock. The catfish prostrate themselves before him.

(4) Catfish and the Sacred Spirit Rock (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

In a dream of Ebisu, who looks after the sacred spirit rock while the Kashima Deity is away, a giant catfish rages, and the town is engulfed in fire.


Chapter 2
Losers and Profiteers: Making Money vs. Losing Money

Namazu-e prints in this section depict wealthy people who lost their properties and occupational groups who lost their jobs in the earthquake. You will also find Namazu-e portraying job categories that made money through earthquake disaster reconstruction, such as construction businesses.

(5) Citizens Defeating Catfish (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

A giant catfish on a chopping board is about to be cooked by disaster victims. The yellow box contains a talisman against earthquakes.

(6) Nuisance Bird (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

While construction workers are having a party at an eel restaurant and enjoying broiled catfish with sake, a monstrous bird flies off with the catfish. This picture expresses satire on the people who benefit from earthquake disaster reconstruction.

(7) Quarrel between Catfish and Prostitutes (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

Angry prostitutes attack a catfish. While they were left without work as the earthquake demolished storehouses, a craftsman, who benefitted from the disaster, intervenes in the fight. Behind them, a rich man who has lost his house and storehouses in the earthquake urges the attackers to punch more.

(8) The Rich Forced to Spit Gold and Silver by A Catfish (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

A catfish dressed entirely in black like a thief is making rich men spit out gold and silver coins. A doctor (left) picking up gold among craftsmen is satirized for making money by treating people injured in the earthquake.


Chapter 3
Parody of Kabuki Plays

Namazu-e presented in Chapter 3 skillfully parody famous scenes from kabuki plays such as Shibaraku and Yowa nasake ukina no yokogushi.

(9) Kabuki Hero Restraining A Catfish—Hardship on Living Outside on Rainy Days (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

This is a parody of the kabuki play, Shibaraku. Instead of Shibaraku no tsurane (the main character’s long speech in the play), the picture has a witty title— Shibaraku no sotone (sleeping outside awhile)—to express hardship of living in the open after the earthquake.

(10) Meiseki-senzai-hane, a Parody of Meiboku-sendai-hagi Performed by Catfish (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

This is a parody of the famous kabuki scene, Meiboku-sendai-hagi. A catfish dressed as Nikki Danjō appears, not from under the floor through the magic of a mouse, as is typical in kabuki plays, but from a gourd cup. Yonosuke (the Kashima Deity) is dressed as Otokonosuke Arajishi.


Chapter 4
Expectation of Social Reforms

With the display of Namazu-e depicting the suffering of the riches after the earthquake, this chapter reveals the feelings of people who expected social reforms through a redistribution of wealth.

(11) Catfish Playing a Game with Frightening Creatures (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

A father is watching a catfish (representing an earthquake), a thunder god, and a flame, playing a game similar to rock, paper, scissors, in a parody of earthquakes, thunder, fire, and fathers, all well-known (and feared) features of Edo life.

(12) Catfish Performing a Disembowelment Suicide (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

A catfish is performing ritual suicide by disembowelment, taking responsibility for causing an earthquake and the resulting troubles to the people. An arrow shot by the Kashima Deity is lodged in his back, and oval gold coins are pouring from his belly. It expresses the people’s desire for social reforms.

(13) Giant Catfish in Edo Bay (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

What is floating in Edo Bay? Not a whale but a giant catfish, spouting gold and silver as a whale spouts water. The motif recalls a whale that actually drifted to the shore of Ōi Village in 1851.


Chapter 5
A Wide Range of Creativity and Imagination

This chapter introduces a variety of Namazu-e that are not categorized under the previous chapter themes.

(14) Chobokure and Chongare Songs (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

A Chobokure (Chongare in the Kyoto-Osaka area) is a song performance by a mendicant priest, at the gate of a house or on the roadside, as a petition for money. In this print, he was followed by a child of Enma (the Underground King) and a child of Jizō (a guardian deity for all sentient beings, especially children). After depicting how people were in extreme confusion at the time of the earthquake and experienced difficulties in living as evacuees after the disaster, the song ends with a desire for social reforms.

(15) The Earthquake and a Million Prayers (1855)
Archived at the Ōjaku Bunko Library

Repenting his causing of the earthquake, a catfish takes a Buddhist vow. With the catfish, craftsmen who are benefiting from the earthquake recite the name of the Buddha one million times. The departed spirits of people who lost their lives in the earthquake appear over their heads.


Esprit—Critical Views Inherited from the Past

In Epilogue, you can explore brocade prints, reflecting the Namazu-e esprit, such as caricatures from the late-Edo restoration period.

(16) Parody of a Print by Ukiyo Matabee
Archived at the National Museum of Japanese History

The gourds depicted in the Namazu-e originate from depictions of Hyōtan-namazu, a catfish with a gourd in Ōtsu-e prints. Ōtsu-e motifs, such as those of the Boshin War (1868-1869), are seen in caricatures in the late-Edo period.