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Bad Sushi or Bad Merchant? The ‘Dead Fish Poisoning Incident’ of 1852


Why have you been dragged out like this?

That's what you get for skimping on wages

Why are you being taught this lesson?

It's payback time for all of your usury

Why must you suffer here in prison?

Must be for buying up all the cotton

Why can't you get but a cup of tea?

They say because you poisoned the water

Why can't you get but a bite to eat?

Must be the curse of eel and carp. As quoted in Wakabayashi Kisaburo, Zeniya Gohei (Osaka: Zogensha, 1984), p. 18.

—From Inga wasan, a Kaga folk ditty

The strange affair began innocuously enough. In the summer of 1851, Zeniya Gohei, a prominent merchant in Kaga han, started a land reclamation project on Kahoku inlet, which lies about three miles northwest of Kanazawa upon the Sea of Japan. Early in the eighth month of 1852, a large number of dead fish floated to the surface of the inlet near the construction site. Within weeks, there were reports of several local residents who apparently died from having eaten the dead fish. In the ensuing flurry of accusations, speculations, and indictments Gohei and his family members were deemed responsible and imprisoned. By the end of the eleventh month of 1852, the eighty-year old Gohei succumbed to ‘urinary blockage’ and died in captivity.

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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
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