A 19th Century Japanese Woodblock

Japan lies at the junction of four of the world’s great tectonic plates (including the three largest ones): the immense Pacific oceanic plate, the North American continental plate, the Eurasian continental plate, and the Philippine oceanic plate all intersect at or near the island nation. The continental plates wrench against each and smash the heavy basalt oceanic plates down into the depths of the planet.  As this happens, Japan is wracked by earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis.

A Map of the World's Tectonic plates

Japan’s terrifying natural phenomena were not properly connected to these large scale movements of the lithosphere until the elegant plate tectonics paradigms of Arthur Holmes and Harry Hammond Hess became widely accepted (a fundamental breakthrough of planetary understanding which did not take place until the 1950’s and 1960’s!).  Traditional Japanese mythology, however, has a surprisingly apt analogy.  According to Shinto lore, the Japanese islands lie on top of an immense catfish, Namazu.  Namazu is restrained by means of a huge rock controlled by the god Kashima (which seems like a reasonably good metaphor for the continental plates riding over the oceanic plates).  Sometimes Kashima abandons his duties and the huge catfish’s struggles to escape cause particularly violent disasters.

Namazu and Kashima (19th Century Woodblock Print)

Like many myths, the story of Namazu took on a political life of its own. During the late nineteenth century, because of a pun, the great catfish became conflated with the rapidly growing Meiji government bureaucracy.  It was dangerous to make direct political statements in early industrial Japan and clever artists used fish as ambiguous stand-ins: bloated catfish could always be dismissed as harmless whimsy or traditional Shinto symbols.  These Namazu-e woodblock prints are therefore peculiar and ambiguous in their own right.  Sometimes the Namazu are the heroes who make the rich elite produce cash for the peasantry.  Other times they crush all of the Japanese as they flounder.  Still other pictures hearken back to ancient tradition and use the catfish to represent the horror of earthquakes and the capriciousness of the gods.

I'm guessing this is some sort of political allegory.

The Namazu has not disappeared in modern Japan.  Bloated bureaucrats and terrible earthquakes still torment the islands.  Fortunately Japan’s cult of the cute has come to the rescue and the great fish is less and less of an earthquake god and more of an endearing cartoon. In fact there is even a pokemon “Namazun” (bizarrely anglicized as “Whiscash”).   I was going to tell you more about him but, for some reason, Whiscash’s Wiki page is vastly more complicated to understand than the pages concerning Shinto and plate tectonics.

the Pokemon Namazun (a.k.a. Whiscash). How did we get here?