Monster fish and magical raccoons

Scientists announced this week that a traditional idea about using fish to predict earthquakes is no more than a superstition.

It’s long been thought that when deep sea fish appear near the surface of the water, it’s a sign that an earthquake’s imminent.

However, an authoritative study published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America contradicts this old folklore.

The report concludes that the unusual appearance of deep-sea fish – such as the oarfish or slender ribbonfish – in Japanese shallow waters does not mean that an earthquake is about to occur.

Professor Yoshiaki Orihara of Tokai University held a press conference at which he said that deep sea fish sightings cannot be used as signals of an imminent earthquake.

Myths of fish

This led me to think more about the relationships between myth and reality in Japan.

Why, I wondered, do pictures of catfish appear on signs which indicate the routes which are designated as emergency roads in the event of a major earthquake?

Well, it appears that this is linked to a belief that catfish use their whiskers to sense the small tremors which occur before earthquakes. It also ties in with an old myth about a giant fish called Namazu.

Wikipedia puts it this way: “Namazu lives in the mud under the islands of Japan and is guarded by the god Kashima who restrains the catfish with a stone. When Kashima lets his guard fall, Namazu thrashes about, causing violent earthquakes.”

Animal stories

There are all kinds of wonderful myths in Japan involving fish, whales, bears, foxes, deer, wild boars and those cuddly-looking creatures known in English as raccoon dogs, which the Japanese call tanuki.

You see statues of tanuki outside restaurants and bars in Japan. They wear a straw hat, carry a flask of sake and are always depicted with big tummy and a giant scrotum.

They are a symbol of fun and business success.

There are real tanuki in Japan, although they don’t wear hats. They are actually part of the dog family and are related to wolves. Their scientific name is canis procyonoides, which suggests a dignified and special animal. Yet sadly nowadays, most tanuki feed on rubbish discarded by humans.

The animation company Studio Ghibli made a wonderful film about them called Pom Poko. In the story, a tribe of tanuki live on a mountain near Tokyo which is slowly being taken over by humans who are building a housing complex. The tanuki are forced out of their homes and many end up fleeing.

I like the way the blogger Noelle Ogawa describes the film on the Crunchy Roll website:

“Twenty-five years later, the lessons from Pom Poko continue to ring true. It’s a harsh look at the damage that humanity can do to its environment, wrapped up in the comical antics of shapeshifting raccoons. It leaves you feeling complicated, disappointed, but also more aware,” writes Noelle.

I think the film also raises awareness of how the Japanese breathe new life into old myths and tell stories which are directly relevant to the modern world.

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