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  • 執筆者の写真Michi

Woodblock Prints Depicting a Giant Catfish(鯰絵)


Yesterday I went to National Museum of Japanese history(歴博)to view the special exhibition of namazu-e, while the Tokyo Olympic Games ended this evening. I was moved so often by many athletes when I was watching TV. I'm looking forward to watching the Paralympics in two weeks time.

The special exhibition is now on view from July 13 to Sept. 5.

The small exhibition of Ebisu, the god of wealth is on view as well.

Many earthquakes have hit our country for many years and the disastrous earthquakes occurred in the Edo period (1603~1867), especially late in the period. The Zenkoji Earthquake occurred in 1847. The Ansei Tokai Earthquake and the Ansei Nankai Earthquake consecutively occurred in 1854, and in 1855 the Ansei Edo Earthquake hit Edo (Tokyo) area, causing incredible damage to the citizens.

Consequently the natural disaster contributed to publishing many woodblock prints of mostly catfish motifs in which the citizens wanted to know what was happening after the big earthquake. The namazu-e prints, depicting a giant catfish were in great demand because namazu was supposed to cause earthquakes. The citizens bought the prints and hung them on the wall in their houses. Why? I'll tell you later.

The woodblock print above is depicting a catfish and 'Kanameishi' ,the Sacred Spirit Rock.

You see Ebisu or the god of wealth reclining on the 'Kanameishi' and dozing comfortably. It was his job to look after 'KANAMEISHI while Kashima Deity was away for a conference held in Izumo, Shimane prefecture. "You're negligent in your duties!" said the giant catfish. The giant catfish raged and caused the great Edo Ansei earhquake, which was believed by the citizens. The terrible scene of the fire was shown in Ebisu god's dream. In his dream you can see Kashima deity on a horse heading for Kashima Shrine to rescue the citizens in Edo.

The KANAMEISHI (要石) is a stone which was supposed to suppress earthquakes.

The citizens rushed to buy the namazu-e prints of this kind because they thought those prints might protect them from the possible dreadful earthquakes.

The woodblock print depicts a giant catfish and fire are wrestling Sumo. The prints that a great catfish fighting with others were very popular and sold well.


The woodblock print above depicted 'Nuisance Bird'.

While construction workers were having a party at an eel restaurant and enjoying broiled catfish with sake, a monstrous bird was going to fly off with the catfish.

This picture expresses satire on the people who benefited from earthquake disaster reconstruction, while the bird connotes Yoshiwara red-light district which didn't benefit at all

because their buildings were heavily damaged.

Source: brochure of National Museum of Japanese History

The woodblock print depicted the scene that kabuki hero was holding down a

great catfish. This is a parody of the kabuki play, Shibaraku.

The picture has a witty title-'sleeping outside for a while', which expresses the citizens' hardship of living in the open air after the earthquake.

This is fishermen's best clothes called 'Maiwai'(万祝). You can see the designs of Ebisu god in the boat. Ebisu is the god of fishing and commerce. They used to wear the 'Maiwai' at the special occasions such as at a party after a big catch of fish, on New Year's day, shrine visiting, and so on.

After I finished viewing, I was very impressed by the brave citizens in Edo who lived with the sarcastic sense of humor after the unprecedented damage caused by the Ansei Edo Earthquake.

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