Article © Heok Hee Ng, uploaded January 01, 2002.
Catfishes usually deserve only passing mention in the folklore of many regions, but in Japan, one species of catfish, Silurus asotus (known locally as the namazu), is prominently featured in local folklore. My association with the stories behind the namazu began when I started conducting research for the January 2005 Catfish of the Month (CotM) article. During the course of this research, I uncovered so many stories featuring the namazu that it became impossible to incorporate them all into the article. Here then, is a brief overview of the many fascinating legends involving the largest freshwater catfish species in Japan.
1. Once, there lived a huge snake that came out at night to kill people from time to time. A parent and child were fishing on a boat one night when the snake came upon them. Praying to heaven for help, the two of them realized after a while that all was quiet. However, there was a large namazu with a swollen belly lying on the shore. On cutting it open, they found the snake inside. The local villagers held a funeral for the namazu and forbade the eating of namazu out of gratitude, which became the pledge of the Yodohime Shrine.
2. A legend from the Tochigi Prefecture tells that three hundred years ago, a farmer saved a young namazu during a terrible drought in that part of the country by throwing it into the Uzuma River. It began to rain immediately for the next three days. Three years later, a child of the same farmer fell into the river. People rushing out to help saw the child being saved from drowning by being supported on the backs of more than twenty namazu. When the people saw that the namazu bestowed favors and protection, they made toy namazu out of ladels, which they gave to children at the moment of their birth. Prayers were offered to the namazu for the healthy growth of the children and protection of their fields.
3. There are three large stones in the shape of namazu near Futsukaichi, which are supposed to have originated from the three pieces into which a giant monster namazu from the Kankō Suki River was cut. During the dry season, rain-prayer ceremonies are performed at these stones, which are washed with rice wine. According to local stories, no namazu occurred in earlier times in a certain well (the Ishi-ido) located in the immediate vicinity. In the summer of 1873, a fire was built near the three stones, causing them to split in places and namazu that now populate the well to spring from these openings.
4. During the mythical origins of the Aso plain, northeastern Kumamoto on the island of Kyūshū. The plain was once a muddy lake. The god Takeiwatatsu inspected the lake and determined that the plain it occupied would be extremely good for growing rice. He therefore decided to drain the lake by allowing the water to run off a hole in the ground on the western end of the lake. Next morning, Takeiwatatsu inspected his handiwork from a height near Teno to the northeast of the lake, but found only half the water gone. The cause of this was immediately perceived as a giant, thousand-year old namazu blocking the water by lying across the plain. The giant fish had wrapped its barbels around a pine tree and to the south, its tail thrashed in one of the highest peaks of the Aso plateau.
After some pondering as to how to get rid of the fish, Takeiwatatsu tied its nose with an enormous vine and tied it to a huge rock near the village of Katasumi. The monster writhed in pain and blows of its tail were felt in Hebi-no-o, 3.5 ri (13.5 km) away. The giant namazu eventually grew exhausted and could struggle no more. Since it was too big to remove, Takeiwatatsu cut it into three pieces and let them fall to the west to be carried away by the waters there. The pieces finally came to rest near a small place in Kamimashiki County, which has since been known as Namazu. The pieces were packed in six baskets (rokka), and the village in which this was done is still called Rokka.
When the time came to use the plain, it was found that rice did not grow well there after all. After consulting with his heavenly colleagues, Takeiwatatsu found out that the namazu, as god of the lake, had cursed the rice crops. Takeiwatatsu then made peace with the namazu-god by worshipping his spirit in Teno and since then, rice has thriven in the Aso plain. Right up to the Meiji Restoration, the adherents of the Aso shrine neither caught nor ate namazu as a result.
5. There was once a temple in Kyōto (the Kamitsu Izumo temple) which suffered from chronic neglect by its priests that it was on the verge of collapse. One such priest, Jōkaku, was the son of the previous priest and was married with a child. One night, Jōkaku's father appeared to him in a dream and told him that as a punishment for his sinful life (the father's, not Jōkaku's), he had been changed into a three-shaku (91 cm) long namazu, doomed to live henceforth in a narrow dark place under the roof of the temple, in which rainwater entering through holes in the roof, had collected. The father then foretold that a heavy storm would occur the day after tomorrow and the temple would collapse. He would fall to the ground and when that happened, Jōkaku was to protect him from the children, carry him to the Katsura River and throw him into the water.
Jōkaku told his wife of the dream and both of them laughed at it. At the predicted time, a wild storm indeed arose, causing the temple to collapse. When the temple roof fell in, many large fish fell with it, including a three-shaku long namazu. When neighbors and children hurried to pick up the fish and carry them away, Jōkaku had forgotten about the dream. He drove a stick through the namazu's head and told his son to hold it. Due to its size, they cut the namazu into pieces, put them in a bucket with the other fish and took it home. Jōkaku's wife saw immediately that this was the fish of her husband's dreams, but it was cooked in spite of her protests. It tasted strange and just as Jōkaku was inviting his wife to eat some of it, he choked on a bone and died instantly. The namazu had taken its revenge.
Here then, are some of the fishy tales of the namazu. This is not a complete list of all the legends associated with the catfish, but of more, perhaps later.
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