7 Obscure Facts about Namazu: The Japanese Earthquake God

Namazu is a gigantic mythological giant catfish, or a deity in the shape of a catfish, thought to reside in the mud beneath the Japanese islands.

According to Japanese mythology and folk belief, Namazu is the monster responsible for causing the devastating earthquakes that shaped Japanese history and culture.

Physical descriptions almost always depict Namazu as a catfish, although there are some variations from one depiction to another.

Gargantuan Size: In all depictions, Namazu is a colossal catfish, and even its smallest movements were thought to be capable of shaking the earth.

The Stone on the Head: Nearly every depiction of Namazu has a large pivot stone pressing on the monster’s head. This pivot stone is called the kaname-ishi, and it was placed on Namazu by the Kashima deity (also called Takemikazuchi) as a way to restrain it. 

On a symbolic level, the kaname-ishi represents the delicate balance between the forces of nature and the ordered world of humans.

Kashima pressing pivot stone on Nazamu to control it

Humanoid Features: In some versions, such as the “Namazu-e” (catfish prints) of the Edo period, the Namazu is depicted as having human-like features, such as facial expressions or limbs. This “humanizing” of Namazu gives it a whimsical character, despite its destructive powers.

Other prints show the fish in combination with human or divine figures which are trying to tame the namazu with the help of a restricted gourd.

Whiskers and Fins: Staying true to the characteristics of an actual catfish, Namazu is often illustrated with long whiskers and a set of fins. These features are exaggerated in artistic representations to emphasize its aquatic and underworldly nature.

Expressive Eyes: Many prints and illustrations of Namazu endow it with expressive, often wide eyes, which serve to convey its mood or intentions, from malevolence to mischief or even remorse.

Dragon-like Features: Namazu is sometimes depicted as having the body of a serpent-dragon, complete with elaborate patterns or scales. This version of Namazu combines some of the symbolism of the dragon with that of Namazu.

Substitutions of Namazu: In some myths, the causer of earthquakes is not the catfish but rather the whale (Kujira) or even the thunder or fire god during their bad moods.

Namazu’s physical description, while varied, is consistent in its representation of a powerful force of nature that is beyond human control but deeply integrated into the human world. 

The creature’s depiction often carries a certain level of whimsy and lightheartedness, which helps to diminish the terror of its associated natural disasters, allowing people to cope with the fear through personification and mythologizing.

Why a giant stone pins down Namazu in the mud

According to Japanese mythology, the sun goddess Amaterasu and the agriculture god Takamimusubi sent Takemikazuchi down to the newly formed Japanese islands to conquer and tame the land.

In his mission, Takemikazuchi had to obtain the loyalty of all minor deities and creatures that existed on the island or subdue the ones that refused his authority.

Namazu was one such troublesome creature that refused to acknowledge the authority of Takemikazuchi. As a result, the conquering god placed a giant pinning stone, called a kaname-ishi, atop the head of Namazu as a way to immobilize the great beast.

Because the Namazu is said to be trapped somewhere near Kashima, Takemikazuchi gained the nickname the “Kashima deity”.

The stone is not just a physical weight but also a spiritual seal that holds the power of the earth and contains Namazu’s immense and turbulent energy.

As the story goes, whenever Kashima must leave his post or when his attention falters, Namazu tries to take advantage of the god’s absence or distraction to move freely. 

It is during these moments, when the deity’s grip on the kaname-ishi weakens, that Namazu manages to wiggle and thrash, causing the earth to shake, resulting in earthquakes.

Thus, according to Japanese folklore belief, earthquakes occur because the Kashima deity has momentarily let his guard down, allowing Namazu to stir. This narrative served to give a comprehensible form to the inexplicable and terrifying natural disasters that frequently afflict Japan.

Why a Catfish to represent earthquakes?

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the Namazu myth is the choice of a catfish to represent the cause of earthquakes. However, this is not as random as it might seem.

The Japanese belief in Namazu likely arose from observations that catfish would behave erratically just before an earthquake started. 

This belief may have started to appear in the late 1600’s, but only became widespread during the massive 1855 earthquake. 

At the time, an eel farmer claimed to have seen unusual behavior from his catfish, and a few hours later, the earthquake struck. The story was recorded and ran in the newspapers, and so the belief in Namazu practically exploded overnight.

From there on out, wood-prints depicting Namazu, called “Namazu-e” were put into circulation.  

The prints show either Namazu as a catfish or disguised as some human being. The fish is pressed down by the Kashima deity by means of a sword or, more commonly, the kaname-ishi stone.

Namazu, bringer change, wealth and luck

The Namazu, even though feared for the devastation it caused, could also bring material wealth.

This is because even though Namazu’s earthquakes caused devastation and grief to all, it affected the rich and powerful much more, since they had more to lose. 

Because of this, Namazu brought relief to the poor, who could escape their harsh lives in the periods of anarchy that followed earthquakes. 

As such, the Namazu-e prints mentioned above first functioned as protection amulets but later gained a more political and social purpose.

Since some of the prints were quite humorous and satirical in nature, Namazu-e prints became ways to communicate ideas about social reform, divine punishment, and redistribution of wealth.

Namazu thus came to represent, at least for the poor (of whom there were many), the yo-naoshi, the renewal of the world, when everything turns topsy-turvy and the poor shall inherit the gold of the rich. 

The monster-namazu, with Edo in flames on its head and back, here vomits gold and silver pieces.

The association of Namazu with wealth and the seas caused it to be associated with Ebisu, a Japanese god depicted as a fisherman who was said to bring luck, wealth, prosperity, and abundance in harves.

Finally, Namazu can give, or at least lend, riches without causing destruction, as long as one knows how to solicit him and if one behaves properly.

For example, in many places in Japan, there are kuramaya (cave storehouses) where one can borrow lacquer bowls or other utensils for use, provided they are returned. 

These are the property of a local deity, often identified with Namazu. But woe if the utensils are not returned: The loan process as well as the good that the utensils bring terminates immediately.

Cultural impact of Namazu

Science-based explanations of earthquakes gradually replaced the belief in Namazu, but despite this, the catfish monster still has a lasting impact on Japanese culture.

Since Namazu only causes earthquakes when Takemikazuchi leaves his post, Namazu’s behavior can also be interpreted as a reminder of the consequences of complacency and the need for vigilance.

Namazu has become a cultural icon in Japan, appearing in various forms of media and popular culture. For instance, Namazu is sometimes used in earthquake education programs to help explain the causes and necessary responses to earthquakes to children. 

The catfish motif is also found in art, literature, and mascots related to disaster prevention and awareness.

In contemporary interpretations, Namazu has sometimes been seen as a symbol of environmental retribution. This reflects the view that natural disasters are a response to human disrespect or abuse of the environment.

There are local festivals and rituals in Japan that pay homage to Namazu, recognizing its power and appeasing its spirit to prevent earthquakes.

Finally, the Namazu has also been known to appear in earthquake dreams, where it functions as a symbol of change and transformation.

Atlas Mythica
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