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Contagious Disease

by Laura W. Allen

One-fifth of the collection consists of prints related to contagious disease — smallpox, cholera, or measles. Other themes in the collection occur in several of these prints, such as those that depict the influence of Shinto and Buddhist deities on disease, or promote traditional Asian and Western remedies.


The UCSF collection includes several rare printed talismans against smallpox, works known as hōsō-e (smallpox pictures) or aka-e (red pictures). Thought to have been made primarily to secure recovery for children, the hōsō-e are considered a type of ofuda, the charms or talismans distributed by Shinto shrines. Attached to a door, post, or screen at the victim's home, its purpose was to protect the inhabitants from the disease. Though extremely popular in times of epidemic, the hōsō-e do not survive in great numbers, as in order to fully banish the disease they were generally destroyed once the patient had recovered.

Nihon shoki, Japan's oldest historical text, records outbreaks of smallpox in Japan as early as 735. An early description of the disease is included in the Ishinhō, a medical text written in 984 by Tamba Yasuyori. Smallpox epidemics continued to strike at regular intervals until the mid-nineteenth century, often with devastating effects. In addition to high mortality rates, survivors could be left blind, or at the very least badly disfigured by pockmarks. People were terrified of the disease, and took comfort from whatever remedies or charms they thought might prove effective in preventing or relieving its symptoms.

In Japanese, smallpox is known as hōsō. Outbreaks of the disease and its spread within the population were attributed to the activity of "noxious spirits," known as yakubyō-gami (plague gods), hōsōgami (smallpox gods), or tōki (pox devils). The concept of the hōsōgami seems to have been somewhat fluid, inasmuch as tutelary spirits, also known as hōsōgami, were called upon for protection from the disease.

Many of the charms and magical practices used in Japan in connection with smallpox are red, as the color was believed to protect from evil, and was especially attractive to the hōsōgami. According to the Shōni hitsuyō yōikugusa, published in 1798 by Kazuki Gyūan, "children suffering from smallpox should wear red garments, and all those caring for the sick should also wear red, as if the rash reddened, they would recover safely."

The belief that when the smallpox rash turned from purplish to red, recovery was at hand, strengthened faith in the color's magical properties. A variety of minor deities, animals, and even toys associated with the color red were recruited into the arsenal of folk beliefs rallied to prevent or reduce the severity of smallpox symptoms.

The hōsō-e in the collection are instantly identifiable in their reliance on a sole printed color, red. Most prominent among the deities represented in hōsō-e are the many heroes associated with special physical power and bravery: Kintarō, a boy of amazing strength, who was raised in the Ashigara mountains by his widowed mother, Yama-uba; Momotarō, the Peach Boy, whose legend includes the vanquishing of demons on Onigashima (Demon Island); Shōki, a Chinese general known as the "demon queller;" and the warrior Minamoto no Tametomo (1139-1170).

The latter, a famous archer, was exiled to the island of Hachijōjima following his role in the Hōgen Revolt of 1156; it was said that while there he chased away the smallpox god, keeping the island free from the disease.

The dual character of the hōsōgami is clearly revealed here. In some cases, powerful heroes, themselves hōsōgami, are shown shooing away, attacking, or killing other, malevolent spirits (also hōsōgami) who represent the disease: the latter appear either as demonic beings or as ordinary humans covered with the smallpox rash.

Other prints feature benign, even lovable hōsōgami, who may be solicited to hasten recovery: a robust child, shown eating offerings such as dango (sweet rice balls) and rice with (red) adzuki beans, or various children's toys, such as the harukoma (hobby-horse) and hagoita (battledore).

Thus the prints incorporate both the notions of literally "fighting" a disease, as well as the concepts of play and childlike amusements as a kind of magical antidote for grave illness. Lightweight objects, like the battledore, or the prints themselves, were also associated in folk beliefs with limiting the severity of an illness, in the sense of a having a "light case." Such images provided distraction for sick children, while simultaneously embodying the parent's wish for full recovery — a return to the child's original joyful and playful state.

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