Today everyone knows that tectonic plates are what causes earthquakes in the Ring of Fire, but hundreds of years ago, it was widely believed that a giant catfish by the name of Namazu was responsible for the tremors. Following one of the great Ansei quakes near Edo (Tokyo) in 1855, the mythological creature became worshiped as a yonaoshi daimyōjin — a “god of world rectification.” His figure was so revered it even spawned a sub-genre of ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) known as namazu-e. Extending from these highly influential prints, the yokai swiftly swam his way into Irezumi and has been shaking up the traditional Japanese tattoos ever since.
According to legends that date back to 15th century, Namazu lurks beneath the bedrock of the seas and rivers of Japan. It is said that the god of thunder, Kashima, is tasked with restraining him, so that he doesn’t cause the ground to violently shake, but every now and then the angler loses his focus, allowing Namazu to thrash and unleash devastation across the land. Depending on the source, the deity subdues the catfish in a variety of inventive ways, weighing him down with an enchanted boulder, pinning him to the ocean floor with a magical sword, and even binding a massive jug of sake to the top of his head.
Namazu is not only depicted as a harbinger of disaster but as a folk hero as well — one who redistributes wealth like a slimy, gilled Robin Hood. This subversive characterization originally came about because following an earthquake in the Japan, the working and merchant classes profited from rebuilding the structures for the ruling class, i.e. the samurai. Conversely, artists who sided with the aristocracy rendered him in satirical contexts, parodying the idea of destruction being a source of creation by exaggerating his features until he looked maniacal.
Close to 300 namazu-e survived through the ages, and the imagery in them has been translated into traditional Japanese tattoos over the years. Some tattooists still depict him in the proletarian light, while others continue the tradition of caricaturing him, broadening his smile to farcical proportions and even rolling him into sushi. In short, Namazu embodies the Japanese saying hyotan de namazu wo osaeru — which translates as “to pin a catfish with a gourd” — meaning no one can quite get a grip on him, and because of his slipperiness, he’ll keep making waves for centuries to come.
To see more traditional Japanese tattoos, make sure to follow all of these artists on Instagram. If you want to shake things up and get a tattoo of Namazu, have one of them design a piece featuring the legendary catfish for you.
You’ve just experienced Indomitable, our series where we explore the history and symbolism of traditional Japanese tattoo motifs. We hope you liked learning about Namazu, the Earthshaker. If you want to discover more about the art form, check out some of our previous articles on baku, cherry blossoms, foo dogs, kirins, the Nue, phoenixes, severed heads, and tofu boys.