“I was interested in the story of Ōnamazu, a giant catfish said to live beneath the islands of Japan, whose head is located about fifty-three miles northeast of Tokyo at a place called Kashima. The catfish is pinned into place by the Shintō god Takemikazuchi, but when the god dozes off or becomes distracted by a cup of sake, the catfish moves, the ground trembles, and the ocean occasionally revolts in the form of a tsunami. Today there is still a shrine at Kashima, and the tip of Takemikazuchi’s pole protrudes out of the earth.
I went to see the sacred spear and wrote about it for a magazine, but the story was rejected. It was too weird and too specific and too hard to relate to, the editor said, and in the end I wrote the classically digestible story that Asian women are often asked to write, about my relationship with my mother and the natural Japanese landscapes in my illustrated childhood journals…
In the years that followed, when I mentioned the catfish and the shrine I was often asked by Westerners, ‘Do modern-day Japanese believe in the catfish?’ It’s true the mascot for the Japanese earthquake warning system is a cartoon catfish. Once, when I was visiting Japan, a bullet train I was riding stopped completely and the lights went out. Around me in the dark — we were in a tunnel — cell phones lit up with little gleaming catfish logos, and people whispered, ’Jishin da.’ 'It is an earthquake.’ A moment later, our voyage continued.
But no, I am not sure the Japanese ever 'believed’ in a giant catfish under the earth in the way that people — and by this I mean Western people — mean when they ask the question.
So while I don’t actually know anyone in Japan who would believe in the great catfish, I do know many who might visit the shrine and pay their respects to Takemikazuchi, who pins the catfish to the earth’s core. They would do this, and they would also be grateful for the modern design of Tokyo skyscrapers that allows buildings to sway safely — 'like a ship,’ an attendant in a hotel once said to me cheerfully, as we looked out the window of my twenty-third-floor room in Tokyo. They would pray to the god Takemikazuchi not because they actually believe that he exists but because to do so puts them in the habit and the mindset of focusing on the earth and disaster, and on planning to keep each other safe.
Would that we, too, could see ourselves as participating in a story in which caring for the earth is not only desirable but also possible…
Ōnamazu, the giant catfish, became particularly popular as a subject for woodblock print artists after the Ansei earthquake in 1855, which was exceptionally cruel to the city of Edo, the old name for modern-day Tokyo. In some of the prints, he’s crying as he is scolded by humans who have lost their homes due to his subterranean twitching. In some cases, Takemikazuchi is removed from his powerful position and replaced by Amaterasu — the sun goddess, whose radiant power would be so inspiring to Japan’s fascist movement three generations later. In yet other prints, merchants and carpenters rejoice because the wide-scale destruction of Edo has brought them wealth in the form of new contracts for construction.
The catfish Ōnamazu is thus a troublemaker, but also a great equalizer. 'In the larger scheme of things,’ writes the scholar Gregory Smits, 'many residents of Edo regarded the Ansei earthquake as a purposeful attempt by the cosmic forces to rectify a society out of balance.’ Given that Ōnamazu played a part in this 'equalizing,’ should we see him as good or bad?
Recently, I taught a class to my MFA students on Japanese story structure. We began with fairy tales and children’s stories, then read English translations of contemporary novels. I explained that Judeo-Christian notions of evil aren’t generally present in these books the way they are in the West. Ōnamazu is part of this framework and shouldn’t be considered some leviathan we need to kill in order to put an end to earthquakes. I would write that his power is 'dual,’ except even to use that word would be incorrect. His power is multifaceted, and therefore to think of stopping or conquering him would be the wrong way to relate to the catfish altogether. It is this multifaceted quality that can feel weird to Westerners visiting a sacred space in Japan. I mean, what exactly is happening at Kashima Shrine?…
Sometimes when I talk to audiences about the differences between Japanese and Western fairy tales, someone — usually a mother — will ask me, 'How do you keep your child from being scared?’… [Today] I say, 'You don’t.’ Because I am now very clear: disaster is endemic to the structure of the world in which we live.
Things should scare us…
The ghosts are there, the thirteen [Japanese] words [for] nature are there, the giant catfish is still there — not because the people who conjured them lack intellect, but because these things are wisdom. To paraphrase the writer Bruno Latour, we have never been modern people who escaped nature and our human nature.
It is true that we need a new framework for stories — one that can amplify our imaginations and teach us how to relate to one another and the natural world so that we might, going forward, avoid the superfires which have caused and will no doubt continue to cause severe destruction.
We train ourselves to 'wipe out’ plagues and 'defeat’ enemies. But assuaging the metaphoric giant catfish will require us to do more than think in polar opposites. It is less the relationship with 'ancient Japan’ from which I think we need to borrow — less the animism of Shintō — and more the flexibility that gave rise to the animism in the first place. Envisioning Ōnamazu will require us to be adaptable, to find the part of our imagination that can go from one to thirteen. We will need to look again at the stories that have long been with us and long been around us to begin to fashion new ones. We will need not only new stories but perhaps also new words to build those stories that will allow us to see the world again.”
- Marie Mutsuki Mockett, from “Thirteen to One: New Stories for an Age of Disaster”