Monday, March 14, 2011
Earthquakes in Japanese Religion
[Originally posted to my Shinto Blog] Earthquakes - more horrifying than lightening and typhoons - were thought to be caused by the movements of a 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 they 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.
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 Kami of Kashima Shrine is with us."
Reading this poem three times was believed to result in protection from earthquakes by 19th century dwellers in Edo (Tokyo).
The Giant Catfish was depicted in many Ukiyoe. 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 all so 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 they are shown worshiping or thanking the catfish for the profits that they earned.
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)
This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.