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Laughing at Disaster: Humor in Japanese Popular Media from the Ansei Edo Earthquake

Speaker: Gregory Smits (Pennsylvania)

02.07.2012, 6 pm to 8 pm

Heidelberg: Karl Jaspers Center, Voßstrasse 2, Gebäude 4400, Raum 212.

The Ansei Edo Earthquake struck Japan’s de facto capital (present-day Tokyo) at approximately 10pm on November 11, 1855. Its estimated magnitude was 7.0, and its epicenter was approximately the mouth of the Arakawa River as it empties into Tokyo Bay. Total deaths ranged from 8,000-10,000, roughly one percent of the population. Damage to storehouses was widespread, and the shaking and subsequent fires destroyed a total of approximately 14,000 houses and other buildings. It was a major disaster, but not so severe as to paralyze the city.

Although reporting on current events was technically illegal, the shogunate, Japan’s military government, did not possess the resources to regulate popular publishing closely. Entrepreneurs began producing broadside prints about the earthquake within two days of the main shock. Within weeks, hundreds of varieties of prints, booklets, and other ephemeral earthquake-related literature were in production. Because most prints featured images of catfish, as a group they are often called “catfish prints” (namazue). By 1855 a giant catfish, sometimes looking more like a whale or a dragon, had become a widely recognized symbol of earthquakes throughout Japan. Images of giant catfish helped the residents of Edo to visualize the catastrophe that had befallen their city. The catfish served as more than a symbol of the earthquake itself. In an anthropomorphic form, catfish dramatized many aspects of the political and social consequences of the earthquake. Anthropomorphized catfish also served as a means by which print makers produced humor, albeit often dark humor, amid the wreckage of the city.

Popular prints produced in the wake of the earthquake featured a cast of supernatural characters, usually prominent local deities and the earthquake catfish itself. People in the prints tended to fall into three main groups, townspeople whose occupations the earthquake harmed, townspeople who profited from the earthquake, and wealthy townspeople forced by the earthquake to give up large quantities of their riches. Many prints took particular delight regarding the suffering of the wealthy, whose mansions and storehouses the earthquake destroyed and who came under government and popular pressure to provide large quantities of aid. Prints often featured catfish literally squeezing the rich, forcing them to vomit gold coins. These prints illustrated one mechanism whereby the earthquake functioned as a redistributor of wealth.

Humor was surely therapeutic for a traumatized society, and earthquake prints relied heavily on linguistic puns, satire, and parody to make amusing points. Printmakers took irreverent delight in lampooning classic human weaknesses such as lust and greed. Wealthy merchants in earthquake prints often lamented not having spent their money before the earthquake struck. Many prints depicted carpenters, plasterers, and other members of the construction trades as dissipating their wealth at local brothels, ending up penniless despite windfall profits. Religious beliefs and rituals also served as material for parody in earthquake prints. This lecture surveys the major varieties and functions of humor in the earthquake prints of late 1855.

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