In this article:
- After the 1855 earthquake in Edo, Japan (modern-day Tokyo), the idea that earthquakes were caused by a giant catfish living underground became widespread throughout Japan.
- According to myth, the catfish (named Namazu) is kept at bay by a god named Takemikazuchi. However, when Takemikazuchi slacks on the job, the catfish thrashes around against the underside of Japan, causing earthquakes.
- Modern studies have suggested that actual catfish, though not the cause of earthquakes, may be able to predict earthquakes thanks to their hypersensitivity to electric fields.
Thanks to modern science, we now understand that earthquakes occur when the force created by two tectonic plates rubbing against each other overcomes the force of friction, sending energy waves rippling through the crust of the Earth.
Before humanity made this discovery, people all over the world had different explanations for what caused earthquakes. One explanation was that a giant catfish (known as Namazu) lurked underground and thrashed against the surface to shake the land.
The legend of an earthquake-causing catfished named Namazu comes to us from the island nation of Japan, which has always been a hotbed of strange and fascinating mythologies.
While the majority of people probably don’t actually believe in the giant, ground-shaking catfish, many scientists now think that normal catfish have the ability to predict earthquakes.
So, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief for a few minutes and imagine we live in a world where the movements of the Earth’s crust are controlled by the movements of a gargantuan, subterranean catfish, let’s look at the legend of Namazu.
Namazu and Takemikazuchi
To be clear, the word namazu is not a reference only to the mythical catfish that controls earthquakes, it is the Japanese word for catfish. However, there is one specific namazu that gets the blame for earthquakes up here on the Earth’s surface.
The particular catfish in question is believed to have been subdued by the god Takemikazuchi, the god of thunder and a sword god, underneath the city of Kashima.
According to the myth, Takemikazuchi keeps the namazu from thrashing around by keeping it pinned under a giant rock (known as the kaname-ishi or “pinning rock”) or under his sword. When Takemikazuchi lets his guard down, the catfish is able to thrash around and cause earthquakes by bumping against the islands above him.
Though the myth has existed for centuries, there was one specific event that sparked widespread belief in this myth: the 1855 Ansei Edo earthquake.
The Origins of the Namazu Myth
Now, the idea that catfish have something to do with earthquakes is not all that hard to understand. After all, catfish do tend to burrow into the mud, making it easy to draw a connection between catfish and the earth.
So, when an eel fisherman observed a catfish being hyperactive just before the 1855 Ansei Edo earthquake, it made sense to him that the two events were connected.
It was from this humble man’s anecdote, the first-recorded claim that catfish can predict earthquakes, that the mythology of the Namazu is believed to have gained popularity. This legend probably existed far before the 1855 earthquake. However, this event and the eel fisherman’s story put this myth at the forefront of people’s minds in Japan.
According to legend, the 1855 Ansei Edo earthquake occurred when Takemikazuchi had to leave town and asked Ebisu, the god of fishermen and luck, to watch over the namazu for him. When Ebisu fell asleep on the job, the catfish thrashed around, causing the terrible natural disaster.
The earthquake, which had a magnitude of 7.0, decimated Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and killed around 7,000 people.
Afterward, merchants immediately capitalized on the fear that another earthquake would strike by selling woodblock prints called namazu-e (“catfish pictures”). The belief was that people could protect themselves by hanging one of these namazu-e on the ceiling of their home.
Namazu as Societal Redeemers
After the earthquake of 1855 (and the several other earthquakes that occured across Japan in 1854), many people became fearful of catfish and their perceived link to earthquakes. Meanwhile, others began to revere catfish as societal redeemers and redistributors of wealth.
The reason for this was that, prior to the 1855 earthquake, the members of Edo’s elite society had been hoarding their wealth, leaving very little for the lower classes. The massive earthquake forced the elite to redistribute some of their wealth to repair the city.
This resulted in lower-class people having many more jobs and also indirectly resulted in the redistribution of wealth throughout the classes. In some people’s minds, this was the catfish’s plan all along.
In this way, the namazu became a sort of working-class hero. The namazu-e woodblock prints served as both a way to protect one’s self from the namazu and to praise it. In fact, some woodblock prints even depicted working-class people partying with the giant fish.
Can Catfish Predict Earthquakes?
After the series of earthquakes that struck Japan in 1854 and 1855, Japanese interest in both catfish and earthquakes piqued, as did their fascination with the connection between the two. Scientists began to rethink the causes of earthquakes and whether or not catfish could actually predict them.
Prior to these earthquakes, many Japanese scientists thought that building wells would relieve ground pressure and reduce the risk of earthquakes. However, since Edo had plentiful ground wells at the time of the 1855 earthquake, they began to rethink the theory.
Another thing that scientists became more interested in was whether or not catfish could actually predict earthquakes.
In the early 1930s, Japanese seismologists Noboru Abe and Shinkishi Hatai began observing catfish. Essentially, they tried to replicate the natural living conditions of catfish and then recorded their behavior around the times of earthquakes. What they found was very interesting.
The experiments conducted by Noboru Abe and Shinkishi Hatai implied that catfish could actually predict earthquakes. Typically, catfish are extremely sedentary and languid creatures. So, when the experimenters would tap on the table that their tank was on, they usually wouldn’t respond in any significant way.
However, the studies showed that the catfish would respond far more dramatically to the taps around six hours before an earthquake. Out of about 178 earthquakes that occurred during the study, the catfish were believed to have predicted about 80% of them.
Since this pioneering study from Noboru Abe and Shinkishi Hatai, many other Japanese and foreign researchers have conducted similar research.
Many of the studies have yielded optimistic results; however, to date, none have been conclusive. Still, many scientists have a hunch that catfish may have a hypersensitivity to shifts in the electric field that allows them to predict earthquakes.
So, while its probably unlikely that a giant, subterranean catfish is the cause of earthquakes in Japan or anywhere in the world, catfish could be a helpful ally in predicting and preparing for earthquakes in the future.