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'Agents of World Renewal: The Rise of Yonaoshi Gods in Japan' -- book review

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‘Agents of World Renewal: The Rise of Yonaoshi Gods in Japan’ — book review

How a giant catfish brought Japanese social justice.

On November 11, 1855, at about 10:00 pm local time, a massive earthquake struck the Japanese capital city of Edo (modern Tokyo). Registering an estimated 7.1 on the surface wave magnitude scale, it destroyed as many as 14,000 buildings, 50,000 homes, and 50 temples, while killing upward of 10,000 people, and injuring many more. The disaster occurred just two years before Irish geophysicist Robert Mallet would coin the term “seismology,” inaugurating the modern scientific study of earthquakes, which we now know are caused by the rupture of underground faults.

But the people of Japan didn’t need Mallet, who was on the other side of the world, to explain to them what had caused the earth to shake so violently that day. They already knew. It was the Namazu — a giant catfish living beneath the islands.

agents of world renewal cover

For many, the idea that a cantankerous catfish had been responsible for an earthquake may sound like the height of superstition, but as religious studies scholar Takashi Miura explains in his new book, Agents of World Renewal: The Rise of Yonaoshi Gods in Japan (University of Hawaii Press, 2019), it was anything but. Deeply embedded in Japanese folk-religion, the Namazu served as a means for the working class of the Edo era to express acerbic political critiques of an avaricious aristocracy.

In  235 pages of crisp, clear, and very readable text, Agents of World Renewal highlights the historical and religious status of the Namazu as a “yonaoshi god,” a unique class of Japanese deities charged with the task of “world renewal” (the literal meaning of yonaoshi), which they often carry out via natural disasters. As Miura notes in the introduction, previous western scholars of religion have often badly misunderstood the nature of these gods.

Using Abrahamic religions as a basis, many have misinterpreted the devotion to yonaoshi gods as a form of millenarianism, like the second coming of Christ and the thousand years of peace it would usher onto the world. Miura says that’s a mistake, as the “world renewal” desired by devotees of Namazu and other related deities is not a wish for an all-out apocalypse, but merely a rejiggering of the current social and political order.

Such misunderstandings are no doubt also due to little having been written about the Namazu in English. In 1880, the American William Elliot Griffis included a short chapter on “The Earthquake Fish” in a volume of Japanese folklore, but it wouldn’t be until Dutch anthropologist Cornelis Ouwehand’s Namazu-e and their Theme, in 1964, that a substantial English-language academic study of the Namazu would appear. With that long out-of-print, historian Gregory Smits’ 2006 essay, “Shaking Up Japan,” remained the most accessible work on the Namazu, before Agents of World Renewal.

Miura says another reason for the confusion surrounding the Namazu is that as a religious entity, its worship is decidedly unofficial. There are no shrines dedicated to the Namazu, or specific rites and rituals designed to praise or appease it. The bulk of our knowledge about the Namazu comes from what would most accurately be described as 19th century political cartoons, mass-produced as posters. About 300 unique types of these cartoons accused the Edo-era aristocracy of avarice, allowing the working class and destitute to go hungry while they hoarded wealth and splurged on luxuries like high-end brothels.

A typical cartoon showed working class Japanese prostrating themselves before a Namazu who is literally beating the gold out of greedy bureaucrats. Others simply show a giant catfish wreaking havoc on Edo, like a piscine Godzilla, while carpenters stand in the foreground pithily observing how good all those smashed mansions will be for business. By unleashing the 1855 earthquake, the Namazu succeeded in bringing about “world renewal,” by loosening the purse strings of the 1% and causing their money to rain down like so many roofing tiles.

'Agents of World Renewal: The Rise of Yonaoshi Gods in Japan' -- book review

But did the Japanese of Edo actually believe that a colossal catfish was really responsible for the death and destruction inflicted upon their city? As with all things involving religious belief, Miura writes that it’s difficult to quantify. Traditions of a giant dragon which slumbered beneath the Japanese islands and caused the earth to shake go back to the early 1600s. By the end of the century, it had metamorphosed into a catfish, for reasons which are unclear. In the 1700s, the Namazu entered into a St. George and the Dragon-type relationship with the Japanese god Kashima, worshiped primarily in Hitachi Province, and by the mid-1800s, the tradition of an earthquake inducing catfish seems to have been universally known across Japan.

One indication of just how pervasive the literal belief in the Namazu may have been is the fact that the Japanese intelligentsia of the 1800s found it necessary to repeatedly refute the idea, instead advancing the latest Chinese science concerning earthquakes being the byproduct of an imbalance in the Earth’s yin and yang. But as Miura observes in his conclusion, the literal belief in the Namazu ultimately proved less important than its power as a religious and political symbol.

Agents of World Renewal is highly recommended for anyone interested in taking a deep dive into 19th century Japanese religion and politics, and how those areas surprisingly overlap with the emerging science of seismology. My only substantial critique of the book is that it only contains a relative handful of black and white illustrations, when more images of the Namazu would have been greatly appreciated.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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