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Japanese Studies Spotlight: Aftershocks: Exploring Japanese Earthquake Prints at the Royal Ontario Museum

by Paula Curtis on 2023-03-15T05:54:00-04:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

Akiko Takesue, Ph.D.
Bishop White Committee Associate Curator of Japanese Art & Culture, Royal Ontario Museum

Figure 1. [2004.38.1.14] Picture of Big Battle, color woodblock print, 1855-56

Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Canada, holds an accordion-style album containing eighty-seven namazu-e 鯰絵, or catfish pictures. These woodblock prints depict and satirize aspects of society after a large earthquake hit the city of Edo (today’s Tokyo) in the tenth month of the second year of Ansei (November 1855 by the Western calendar). Why catfish? According to a common folk belief that prevailed throughout Japan by the late seventeenth century, earthquakes were caused by giant catfish who lived underground.

ROM purchased this album (Fig. 2) in 2000 from a local art dealer who specializes in Japanese art. This kind of album (ori-hon 折本) of namazu-e are not so uncommon in Japan, but what makes ROM’s album unique is that it includes a preface written by a contemporary collector, named Shuseidō Yūgi Dōjin (details unknown), dated twelfth month of the second year of Ansei (January 1856), just two months after the earthquake.

Figure 2. [2004.38.1.2] Preface of ROM's album of earthquake prints, 1856.

The creation and huge popularity of namazu-e in the late Edo period (1603-1868) were specific to the sociopolitical conditions of the city. In the early nineteenth century, Edo witnessed rapid urbanization, commercialization, and consumerism, which worsened the economic gap between the rich and the poor. Political tensions caused by the increased presence of Western powers also began to be felt around this time. Society simultaneously enjoyed a highly-developed print culture that familiarized people in Edo with the commonly held idea that a natural disaster was something that was meant to happen to bring about a better society.

Due to their complex entanglement in the historical, cultural, and visual language of their time, it was not until recently that namazu-e began to draw major attention beyond scholarly circles in and outside Japan. Even at the ROM, where the uniqueness and potential significance of this album was recognized, and it was researched and displayed sporadically,1 the depth of cultural importance of namazu-e and their relevance to today’s world were never fully explored until now. Thanks to the generous support and cooperation from the Japan Foundation, Toronto, the ROM launched an online exhibition of this namazu-e album, Aftershocks: Japanese Earthquake Prints, in November 2022. It is created using the Google Arts & Culture (GAC) platform, with which the Royal Ontario Museum had a preexisting relationship given GAC’s work with museums to digitally display their holdings to the public. The exhibit will be available to a global audience for several years (the closing date is TBD).

The creation of this online exhibition was very much a team effort with multiple staff from different departments throughout the museum. I am especially indebted to the interpretive planner, Kendra Campbell, for her work on the development of its contents and structure. She was also fundamental in developing the digital audience experiences, together with the exhibition coordinator, Jessica Hawthorn. I greatly appreciate their versatility, creativity, and thoughtfulness, which were essential to making this exhibition possible.

The exhibition team aimed to reframe namazu-e from a modern perspective and emphasize their relevance to contemporary audiences while simultaneously introducing their cultural significance in the late Edo period. Our exhibition is guided by two core ideas: first, how these catfish prints, now 170 years old, functioned as a form of “social media,”demonstrating how people and communities reacted to the natural disaster and social inequalities caused by it through complex emotions. Second, exploring the underlying relationships between nature, humans, and society implied in these prints and encouraging audiences to think about their own positions within the shifting dynamics of these forces today.


Social Histories of Namazu-e

The exhibition consists of three stories–Shaking Foundation; A Spectrum of Emotions; and A Fleeting Hope for Change–each of which addresses different topics. It is structured in such a way that the viewer can start from any point. The story Shaking Foundation introduces prints that refer to Japanese folk beliefs relating to earthquakes and explores the way Edo townspeople understood earthquakes through three key elements—the catfish, the deity Kashima, and the kaname-ishi (foundation stone). Figure 3, for example, depicts the deity Kashima disciplining the giant catfish that caused the 1855 earthquake by pressing down the foundation stone, while four small catfish apologize and promise not to cause any more earthquakes.

Figure 3. [2004.38.1.48] Untitled (Kashima Deity pressing down giant catfish with Kaname-ishi), color woodblock print, 1855-56.

While most namazu-e are humorous and cartoon-like, some also took a more journalistic point of view, functioning as a source of information about the damage and the relief activities. For example, the text in Figure 4 lists affected areas, the number of collapsed store houses, and the location of the official aid centers. Much like today’s news and social media, these prints served as a source of information at the time of the 1855 disaster.


Figure 4. [2004.38.1.32] Untitled (Damage of the Disaster), color woodblock print, 1855-56.

The story A Spectrum of Emotions explores the diverse emotional reactions to earthquakes from townspeople in Edo—from sorrow to anger and even joy. Figure 5, for example, illustrates people who are angry with the two giant catfish, who caused two large earthquakes in Shinshu in 1847 and Edo in 1855, while others are trying to stop those people from attacking the catfish. Their dialogue is written all over the image just like in modern comics. As viewers scroll through our online exhibition, close-ups of each person’s face are shown along with a translation of her or his dialogue—examples of visitor experiences only possible in the digital format.

Figure 5. [2004.38.1.35] Untitled (Edo catfish and Shinshu catfish), color woodblock print, 1855-56.

Namazu-e often demonstrate how humor helped people cope with their suffering. In Figure 6, for example, four half-human catfish wearing montsuki (formal kimono) are apologizing to a large group of deities and promising not to cause any more earthquakes by sealing a written pledge. This comical image would have provided the earthquake victims with a sense of relief, as, at the very least, they had received an apology from someone for their suffering. Here again, our exhibit offers close-ups of details of the print with descriptions for the viewer to enjoy.

Figure 6. [2004.38.1.16] (left) & .57 (right)] Earthquake Yielding to Eight Million Deities, color woodblock print, 1855-56.

The story A Fleeting Hope for Change focuses on the aspects of namazu-e that reflect social issues. These prints demonstrate Edo townspeople’s more positive and hopeful reactions to earthquakes, which were derived from the belief—if transitory—that earthquakes were meant to happen for “yo-naoshi” or a “rectification of society.”

Figure 7. [2004.38.1.84] (right) Mercy of Social-Mending Catfish, color woodblock print, 1855-56.

Figure 8. [2004.38.1.18] (left) Rich is Less Rich, Artisan is Richer, color woodblock print, 1855-56.

In Figure 7, for example, the catfish are rescuing people from under the debris—a visual metaphor that the earthquake is pulling them out from the failing social system that had caused economic inequality before the earthquake.

We find similar critiques in other prints that present harsh satire against wealthy merchants. One print, Figure 8, depicts the merchants as afflicted with illness, squatting to defecate—upon closer inspection, however, they are actually excreting money, while carpenters and artisans, tasked with rebuilding (and thus gaining extra income), receive the money. This depiction satirizes the imbalance of wealth in pre-earthquake society, considered as a social ‘illness,’ and shows how it is getting mended by the disaster.

Despite their popularity, namazu-e were short-lived. Unlike typical printed matter in the Edo period, namazu-e were published by mostly anonymous artists and publishers and without going through the official censorship. Two months after the earthquake, the government banned their production. As the reconstruction of the city progressed, the passion for namazu-e also began to fade—as did the fleeting hope for social change.

In our exhibition, we demonstrate the transitory nature of namazu-e by ending each story with the same print, one that is not included in the namazu-e album: Utagawa Hiroshige’s Cherry Blossoms on the Banks of the Tama River, from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. This print was published only four months after the earthquake, but it shows a very different view of the city—peaceful and beautiful.

Figure 9. [973x57.18.34] Utagawa Hiroshige, Cherry Blossoms on the Banks of the Tama River, from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, color woodblock print, 1856.


Namazu-e and the Modern Experience

Throughout the exhibition, we incorporated a variety of digital experiences to evoke viewers’ interest and highlight how they can be interpreted through a variety of lenses relevant to a modern-day audience. In addition to the annotated details, an experience that is difficult to achieve in a physical exhibition, we also provide several short videos by experts in related fields.

Dr. Nathan Lujan, an ichthyologist who happens to be a specialist on catfish, provides a video in the Shaking Foundation section discussing a Japanese catfish from the ROM’s collection. The viewer can also explore an interactive 3D model of the specimen. Professor Kristen Boss, Assistant Professor of Indigenous Science and Technology Studies at University of Toronto, Mississauga, and Co-Director of the Technoscience Research Unit, speaks about environmental violence and justice from the indigenous perspective. 

Dr. Jazmin Scarlett, a social volcanologist, discusses disaster management and how people live in environments with natural hazards. A screencap of her talk can be seen to the left. Professor Gregory Smits, Professor of History and Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University, speaks about the history of earthquakes and catfish prints, as well as the political economy of post-earthquake Edo. Together, their expertise helps to deepen the viewer’s interest while demonstrating the relevance of namazu-e to present times.


We hope that this online exhibition will invite a broader public to explore the humorous yet deeply meaningful world of namazu-e. In conjunction with the online exhibition, educator resources are also available for Grade 3-12: Virtual Exhibition Experience: Aftershocks: Japanese Earthquake Prints | Royal Ontario Museum (

In an age of social media, and at a time when an increasing number of intense natural disasters are occurring around the world, the role that namazu-e played in the aftermath of an earthquake in Edo Japan can be better appreciated and is more relevant than ever. Visit our exhibition online to dive into the many stories they have to tell.

Images courtesy of the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum), Toronto, Canada. © ROM

[1] Hidemi Shiga, “Study of the Ansei Edo earthquake wood-block prints in the Royal Ontario Museum,” MA thesis, University of Toronto, 2004), and it was exhibited at the ROM in 2009-2010.

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