In the past few weeks, as the international pandemic has led the people of Japan to quarantine themselves and practice social distancing, characters from supernatural folklore (yōkai), including one that has served as a symbol of epidemics since the 1840s, have experienced a sudden resurgence of popularity.

For centuries, yōkai functioned as pre-scientific explanations for microbiological phenomena such as the decay of organic material, and several were specifically associated with illness. Arguably the earliest work of Japanese art that features such characters is the Scroll of Hungry Ghosts (Gaki zoshi, late 12th century). Interest in yōkai exploded during the 18th century, when the ukiyo-e print designer Toriyama Sekien (1712–1788) published his encyclopedic bestiary The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons (Gazu hyakki yagyō, 1776). Not only did this publication enjoy astonishing commercial success in its own right, it also had a substantial influence upon the imagery of artists such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861).

This print by Kuniyoshi recalls a legend documented in the Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari, early 14th century). In that story, the warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu (944–1021), bedridden with malaria, is attacked by a mysterious, shrouded figure. The ever-vigilant Yorimitsu grabs his sword and defends himself, and the wounded assailant flees, leaving a trail of blood. The following day, accompanied by his four retainers, Yorimitsu pursues and ultimately confronts his enemy–a monstrous, shape-shifting spider–near Kitano Shrine. Kuniyoshi published numerous prints that refer to this story, but among them, few emphasize the Earth Spider’s personification of illness more clearly than this one, in which the creature, assuming humanoid form, lurks beside Yorimitsu’s sickbed and prepares to smother him with a veil of webbing.

In recent decades, yōkai have attracted a great deal of public interest as curious vestiges of traditional Japanese art. For this reason, they have appeared in the animated films of Miyazaki Hayao (b. 1941), the manga of Mizuki Shigeru (1922–2015), and other aspects of contemporary Japanese popular culture. Now, to the extent that these strange, anthropomorphic creatures function as expressions of disease, stories about them feel particularly relevant.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861)
Minamoto no Yorimitsu–Usugumo
From the series “Japanese and Chinese Comparisons of the ‘Usugumo’ Chapter of Genji”
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), 1855
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1991 (28653)