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Squeezing the Wealthy to renew the World

Significantly, the suffering townspeople who deserve compassion do not include wealthy merchants, who especially in the catfish prints became deserving objects of cosmic chastisement. A common motif in the prints is the earthquake distributing money from wealthy merchants to ordinary townspeople. Prints typically depict prosperous merchants amidst the ruins of their collapsed storehouses vomiting or excreting gold coins. Often an anthropomorphized catfish prods the afflicted person to emphasize the redistributive role of the earthquake, forcing the rich to vomit and excrete money.

Distinguished Millionaires (Mochimaru no chōsha) is a good example, beginning with the title. Mochi means to possess, and maru (round) can mean money in the form of coins. A common gesture indicating money, then as now, is to make a circle with the thumb and index finger of the right hand. In this print, maru is written not with the usual Chinese character but as a circle, with the additional possible meaning of zero. Moreover, the chō of chōsha is written backwards to indicate a reversal of fortunes. The print features three wealthy or formerly wealthy men in the foreground excreting gold and silver coins. Hovering above them is a nearly destroyed storehouse. The text begins with the storehouse, pointing out that the men lack the power to restore it. The three then begin a conversation, which reveals that in addition to the obvious earthquake damage, they have been pressured to provide charitable aid (segyō). The first man, for example, says, “Indeed, indeed, I am greatly burdened. Even if I were to distribute aid here and there, I doubt that I would acquire hidden virtue [intoku].”[1] Both “aid” and “hidden virtue” (providing assistance without someone else knowing) are terms with Buddhist overtones, and the speaker doubts that he will get any karmic return on his investment of charitable aid.

A print featuring a neck tug-of-war between a guild head (zatō) representing the rich and a giant catfish has the catfish declaring that the earthquake was divine punishment for excessive greed contrary to the teachings of the kami and buddhas.[2] In many prints of this type, the recipients of the flow of wealth from elite purses are clearly skilled laborers. Indeed, one print is entitled Distinguished Skilled Laborer Millionaires (Marumochi shokunin chōsha). Here too, the chō of chōsha is reversed left and right to indicate a reversal of fortune. The seven human figures in the print, reminiscent of the seven deities of good fortune, form a circle. At the top, two wealthy men excrete money that six laborers pocket. One laborer exclaims, “We have plenty of work and plenty of liquor,” all “thanks to Earthquakesama.”[3] Similarly, in the print Erecting Peace (Taira no tatemai), a crew of anthropomorphic catfish dressed as construction workers, along with the deity Daikoku, work to erect a massive structure that forms the character taira (peace, calm). One of the catfish tills the ground beneath the character, which yields gold coins. The six catfish standing in a circle below it, plus Daikoku, are also reminiscent of the seven deities of good fortune. The verse at the top of the print reads, “Mixing together wealth and poverty, the catfish erect a world of peace,” a peace that was the result of a redistribution of wealth.[4]

The print Prosperity Treasure Ship (Hanjō takarabune) contains only a short song as text: “With plans to make big money, we bravely rise up from the waves” (fig. 8). Rising from the waves suggests profit from the recent destruction, and the visual elements of the print make this point in several ways. The usual “treasure ship” image is that of the seven deities of good fortune happily sailing off to Penglai (J. Hōrai), the island of the immortals off the coast of China. Prosperity Treasure Ship replaces the seven deities of good fortune with seven skilled laborers, including a carpenter (replacing Ebisu), a general construction laborer (replacing Daikoku), a high-beam construction worker (replacing Bishōmon-ten), a courtesan (replacing Benzai-ten), a roofer (replacing Hotei), a tile vendor (replacing Fukurokujū), and a plasterer (replacing Jurōjin). A giant catfish as the earthquake serves as the body of the ship, and its sail is the cracked wall of a storehouse propped up with wooden supports. The bow of the ship is fire in the form of a flaming dragon. Other standard iconographic elements in treasure ship prints include a pine tree (symbol of longevity), which here is replaced by bundles of copper cash. The crane flying overhead in the print consists of various dried fish products, and the turtle swimming nearby

Figure 8 Prosperity Treasure Ship (Hanjotakarabune, 1855).

Courtesy of the National Diet Library, Japan ( pid/1302079). consists of dried squid. Vendors and suppliers of such ready-to-eat food products prospered in the aftermath of the earthquake. The sea upon which the boat sails consists of blue roof tiles and roof tile fragments.[5]

The Ansei Edo earthquake created a short-term transfer of wealth from one group of commoners—rich merchants—to less affluent commoners, especially skilled laborers. One mechanism was simply that wealthy civilian survivors and government officials needed to rebuild their storehouses and mansions. Less obvious but probably more significant was social pressure, including bakufu pressure, to contribute to the relief effort. In most prints and popular literature, the townspeople used the term “world renewal” (yonaoshi) to characterize this wealth transfer.

If popular perceptions of this wealth transfer were accurate, what levels of wage increase took place during the early weeks of the rebuilding? The City Magistrate recognized that wages and prices would inevitably rise, so its strategy was to allow what it regarded as a reasonable increase and prohibit anything beyond that. Noguchi has summarized these official rates in tabular form.[6] For example, the official increase for full-fledged carpenters was 50 percent, from 3.0 monme of silver to 4.5. Such an increase would have been substantial, of course, but less than what one might expect from the vast downward flows of gold and silver depicted in the catfish prints. Indeed, actual wages were much higher than the official rates. By the middle of the tenth month, some carpenters were commanding five times their usual wages, and plasterers and roofers were sometimes working at seven times normal. Wages became so high that many domains began bringing their own construction workers to Edo, even from a great distance. The Hiromae domain in the Tōhoku region, for example, stopped hiring local labor and brought in seventy-six workers from its home territory. This influx of workers from the outside may have been the reason for a slight decline in wage levels during the eleventh month.[7]

Sakuma Chōkei, the young police official, was heavily involved in relief efforts. Looking back on the event many years later, he pointed out that City Magistrate officials were worried about unreasonable wages by skilled laborers. In retrospect, however, inevitable market forces were at work. In the years before the earthquake, many skilled laborers had left Edo for their home provinces because the economy was slow. Therefore, they were in short supply even without the intervention of the earthquake. The earthquake provided an opportunity for great profits, which caused skilled laborers from around Japan to journey to Edo. This influx “naturally lowered wage rates.” Moreover, Sakuma reminisced, because the earthquake brought renewed prosperity to Edo, we should look upon the activities of these workers in a positive light.[8]

Although official attention and popular prints focused on the profits of skilled laborers, we should bear in mind that unskilled laborers and many other occupations were in a position to benefit economically from the earthquake. Nearly any able-bodied man, for example, would have been able to find work as a hauler of dirt or debris during the rebuilding. Indeed, at one point wages for dirt haulers reached ten times their usual rate. Similarly, porters of all kinds were in demand. Food was abundant, thanks in large part to the recent completion of a bountiful harvest that year. Sellers of rice cakes, dried fish, and other ready-to-eat foods, and vendors of small items such as towels or footwear would have been among the many common people for whom the earthquake ended up providing temporary financial relief.[9] The earthquake started as a terrifying disaster, but for many of Edo's townspeople it soon became a source of prosperity.

Earthquake as deity

For a few months, human entities represented by such figures as Secondto-None Plasterer Buddha and Roof Tile Earthen Storehouse Bodhisattva enjoyed elevated status and income. “Earthquake-sama,” of course, made this all possible. It was therefore logical, at least for those who had benefited from it, to deify the earthquake. Earthquake-sama became a deity-ofthe-moment (hayarigami), represented as a giant catfish. The print Catfish Hanging Scroll (Namazu no kakejiku) shows an image of a giant catfish painted on a hanging scroll, attended by both a shrine and a temple priest. The throng of people venerating the catfish consists of occupations that benefited from the earthquake, including a plasterer, used clothing merchant, bar (izaka) proprietor, roofer, bone healer, lumber merchant, carpenter, hardware merchant, regular construction worker, rickshaw puller, and a brothel proprietor. The Foundation Stone that normally pins down the great beast has become a small, snail-like adornment on the head of the catfish.[10]

In Joyous Self-Precaution (Manzairaku mi no yōjin), the earthquake catfish similarly appears as an image on a hanging scroll. Various professions such as carpenters and other construction workers, a hardware vendor, and a footwear vendor are asking the earthquake catfish to look after them in the future. The passage ends with a seller of outbuildings saying, “Praise, praise, praise . . . [namu]!” followed by a variation of the expression we have seen repeatedly: though the earth may shake, the Foundation Stone remains in place. The text of the print, however, leaves out any mention of the everlasting reign of the sovereign.[11] This merchant is not concerned with such abstractions. He and those around him venerate the earthquake catfish, owing to the concrete wealth it has brought them. In prints such as these, we see that the earthquake itself took on a divine quality in the eyes of some of the townspeople, the logical culmination of interpreting it as an act of cosmic world renewal.

  • [1] Print #88 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 224, 298–299. For a discussion of prints featuring this motif, see Wakamizu, Edokko, 60–65. To view this print, see–100/00001.jpg.
  • [2] Print #99 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 224, 303–304. See also Abe Yoshinari, “Jishin to hitobito no sōzōryoku,” in Chūō bōsai kaigi, 1855 Ansei Edo jishin hōkokusho, 141–142. To view this print, see http://gazo.dl.itc–035/00001.jpg.
  • [3] Print #94 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 301.
  • [4] Print #85 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 297. See also Abe Yasunari, “Jishin to hitobito no sōzōryoku” in Chūō bōsai kaigi, Ansei Edo jishin, 139–143. To view this print, see
  • [5] Print #130 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 13, 320–322. See figure 9 in the present volume.
  • [6] Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, hyō 8, 203.
  • [7] “Ansei itsubō jishin kibun,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 456; Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, 202–204; Kitahara, Jishin no shakaishi, 245–246; and Kitahara, “Saigai no shakaizō,” 66.
  • [8] “Ansei daijishin jikkendan,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 456.
  • [9] See Kitahara, Jishin no shakaishi, 245–246, for a discussion of this matter.
  • [10] Print #129 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 222, 320. To view this image, see _db/1999news/04/403/images/194.jpg.
  • [11] Print #69 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 285–286. To view this print, see–047/00001.jpg.
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