Earthquakes in Japanese Religion
Image by timtak
Earthquakes – more horrifying than lightening and typhoons – were thought to be caused by the movements of giant catfish.
While Typhoons and Lightening have patron gods (Fuujin and Raijin respectively) who are respected enough to be appeased, so cataclismic is the history of Japanese earthquake disasters perhaps, that earthquakes are not deified, but attributed to the maleficence of a big black fish.
Japanese catfish, or namazu, are or were thought to be, large lazy, bottom-dwelling fish with little culinary value who, for their part feel jealous of the admiration humans have for other fish species. Earthquakes were thought to be caused by the movements, or jealous malisciousness of giant catfish at the bottom of the sea, or beaneath the ground.
These catfish were held in place however by the god Takemikazuchi who is enshrined at two shrines in Ibaraki prefecture, including Kashima Jinguu (Imperial Shrine) in Kamisu City.
The Shinto deity uses an enourmous rock (whose tip can be seen in the shrine grounds – most of the rock is buried), his sword, or a giant gourd to prevent the catfish from moving.
The rock, the most famous means of keeping the catfish in places, is called a Kanameishi or keystone.
However, in moments of lapse, or while on holiday to Izumo in October – which is called the Godless-Month since all Shinto Kami are said to make the trip to Izumo – the giant catfish moves with horrendus consequence.
In the 6th century book of poems, the Manyoshu (book of ten thousand verses) there is a poem which reads
"The keystone may wobble but it will not become unstuck so long as the God of Kashima Shrine is with us."
Reading this poem three times was believed to be a protection from earthquakes by 19th century dwellers in Edo (Tokyo).
The Giant Catfish was depicted in many Ukiyoe (pictures of the floating world). The genre is known as "Catfish-pictures" but only 300 survive since they were banned by the Edo government.
As well as depicting the subjugation of the giant catfish by the God and the Key stone rock, they also showed (as in the picture above) house builders taking a different attitude to the catfish. In the above picture the group of construction workers top left do not participate in subjugating the Catfish. In another picture construction workers are shown worshiping or thanking the catfish for the profits that they earned after an earthquake. In another picture construction workers are seen helping the catfish in a tug of war between the catfish and Takemikazuchi, helped by representatives of the general population.
After the great Tokyo earthquake of 1855 the catfish is also depicted as being responsible for redistributing wealth from rich to poor, and became regarded as a world repairing deity (Yonaoshi Daimyoujin).
So in the end it is probably true to say that Japanese religion, particularly Shinto, can be trusted to see a positive side to nature, even the most horrific, even in the face of great human loss and tragedy.
The above image is believed to be in the public domain. The above text is my interpretation of internet recsources such as Japanese wikipedia and these two blog posts (in english)
And the source of the above photo (in Japanese)
The theme of a natural calamity being held in check by a giant rock is also found in the Shinto creation myth. Izanami, the primal female that gave birth to all of creation, dies when she gives birth to the god of fire. Izanagi, her husband, kills the god of fire, and goes to visit his wife in the underworld where he finds her rotting form terrifying and flees, trapping Izanami in the underworld with a giant rock. Thus trapped, Izanami promises to kill 1000 people a day. Her husband responds that he will allow for 1500 people a day to be born.
The connection between the belief in the catfish and the Shinto creation myth, is reinforced since it is one of Izanagi’s sons, born from the blood of the god of fire (that killed his mother, killed by his father) dripping onto rock, that holds the earthquake subduing keystone in place.
I asked my neighbours for their thoughts concerning the earthquake. One said that with the long history of earthquakes in Japan fear of them is built into their system, and at the same time their destructive power is seen as inevitable.
Perhaps the feeling is that earthquakes like death are going to come. All that one can do is postpone them by villigence and attempt to have faith in natural creation after they are gone.
The earthquake in North East Japan seems to get worse and worse.