For ¥1,000 each, Chofukujuji temple in Chiba Prefecture sells silk omamori amulets embroidered with an image of Tsuno Daishi (Great Horned Master), the demon-like incarnation of the 10th-century Buddhist monk Ryogen. Legend says Ryogen fought off yakubyo-gami (deities transmitting epidemics) by transforming into a devilish monster.
Since then, Ganzan Daishi, as the monk is also known, has been revered for his magical powers to dispel sickness and other misfortunes, purported virtues that are being sought after as the nation grapples with the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“We make around 300 of these omamori each week, praying that it wards off the coronavirus,” says Choshu Imai, head monk of the 1,200-year-old temple. “We also have an online shop where worshippers can purchase them without having to physically visit our temple. They’re selling fast.”
For well over a millennium, religion and folk beliefs have been offering comfort and remedies in the face of deadly epidemics that have plagued Japan. Now, amid growing anxiety over the invisible pathogen that has been claiming tens of thousands of lives around the world, some Japanese are turning to faith and mythology for solace.
At Kasuga Grand Shrine in Nara Prefecture, Shinto priests have been reciting special prayers each morning in the hope of preventing the virus’ spread.
At Ikegami Honmonji, a large Nichiren Buddhist temple located in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, monks have been chanting daimoku mantras for the swift recovery of COVID-19 patients.
“We are offering daily prayers for 100 days between March 1 and May 30,” a temple spokesperson says.
And at Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, two giant chinowa wreathes have been erected on its premises for worshippers to walk through and around to cleanse impurities and pray for sound health. While typically set up during the famed Gion Festival held each summer, a spokesperson says this is the first time the shrine has made an exception since 1877, when a cholera epidemic raged across the country.
“We aren’t sure for how long we will keep them out for the public,” the spokesperson says, reflecting uncertainty over the duration of the crisis.
From influenza and dysentery to smallpox and measles, Japan has been hit by numerous epidemics over the course of its history. While modern medicine helped curb explosive outbreaks following World War II, records indicate that the Japanese have been engaged in a seemingly endless battle against pestilence.
“The oldest documented epidemic dates back to the Tenpyo Era (729-749) during the reign of Emperor Shomu when a major smallpox outbreak ravaged Japan,” says Akihiro Hatanaka, an author and editor specializing in Japanese folklore. The first onslaught of smallpox in 735 was followed by another surge in 737 that resulted in the deaths of roughly a third of the entire population of Japan at the time, according to some estimates.
“There is a likelihood that the first epidemic was sparked by kentoshi delegates returning from China, while the second may have come from the Korean Peninsula via Japanese missions to Silla,” he says, referring to the kingdom in southwestern Korea.
“These events have ingrained the notion that epidemics are brought into Japan from elsewhere, a sentiment that is still shared today,” Hatanaka says.
The smallpox epidemic had major social and political ramifications, with the disease killing all four brothers of the powerful Fujiwara clan and giving rise to rival Tachibana no Moroe. The Tenpyo Era also coincided with a massive earthquake that rocked central Japan, emboldening Emperor Shomu’s commitment to Buddhism and leading to the construction of the grand temple of Todaiji in Nara and its Great Buddha, which is said to have required the help of 2.6 million people to finish.
The symbolism of the Great Buddha as protector against calamities remains relevant to this day. When the northern island of Hokkaido was struck by a typhoon and an earthquake in September 2018, Twitter users began posting messages calling for the construction of another Buddha statue.
The trend prompted a user going by the Twitter name “namosuke” to create a simple website that allows visitors to help build a virtual Buddha by clicking on any number of the 26 tasks listed on the page, including “drying clay” and “providing copper.”
Namosuke, an 18-year-old freshman at Keio University who asked to remain anonymous, says the number of users of the service surged from the start of the year when the coronavirus began dominating the news.
Since then, four Buddhas have been completed with the help of a total of 36.8 million clicks, with “construction” ongoing on another Buddha.
“I get the impression that people are visiting the website seeking relief from the anxiety and isolation they may be feeling during these times,” he says.
As frequent recurrences of epidemics continued to threaten Japan during the Heian Period (794-1185), a deity of foreign import named Gozu Tenno, or the ox-head heaven-king, came to be widely worshipped. Considered a spirit of disease, the mythological figure was eventually transformed into a tutelary that protected its worshippers from plagues.
Hatanaka, who has written books such as “Twenty-first Century Folklore” and “Disaster and Ghosts,” the latter focusing on the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, says the deity also became associated with the legend of the brothers Somin and Kotan Shorai.
According to lore, during a journey to find himself a spouse, Buto-shin — another name for Gozu Tenno — asked to spend a night at the home of the wealthy Kotan, the younger of the two brothers. Kotan coldly rejected the request, while the poor but charitable Somin gladly gave the god refuge.
In return, Somin was promised his descendants would be safe from calamities, a legend that has since led to charms with the inscription “Somin Shorai” being made and distributed at shrines.
Originally said to have been a protective deity of the Buddhist Jetavana monastery in India, (known as Gion Shoja in Japanese), Gozu Tenno was also identified with Susanoo, a god of Japanese mythology, as well as Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing and medicine.
Despite the deity’s enormous influence, it’s name began to fade in the public mind when it was singled out during the 1868 shinbutsu bunri that saw the Meiji government introducing the separation of Buddhism and Shinto. The ambiguous nature of Gozu Tenno that crossed over both religions was considered problematic, Hatanaka says.
While the Gion shrines that revered Gozu Tenno were subsequently forced to change its names, the deity’s chief features as a god of epidemics continues to be worshipped under its Susanoo alias at Yasaka, Yagumo, Tsushima and Suga shrines, among others. Meanwhile, the Gion Festival, which originated during an epidemic in the ninth century as a purification ritual to make peace with angry spirits, is held in July each year.
Successive outbreaks of cholera ripped through the population during the late Edo Period (1603-1868) and Meiji Era (1868-1912) when Japan ended its isolationist policy and opened up to the West. Fear of the deadly disease and widespread paranoia led the masses to believe in rumors that the sickness was being transmitted by malicious foreign beasts of Western origin — often depicted as foxes — entering the archipelago and possessing its people.
Since it wasn’t until 1883 that the cholera bacterium was discovered by German doctor Robert Koch, people had no clue on how to prevent the horrific sickness causing diarrhea, vomiting and severe dehydration from spreading, turning them toward divine intervention.
Pilgrims flocked to Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, long a center of wolf worship in Japan. The shrine’s official records indicate that by Aug. 24, 1858 — the summer of a massive cholera epidemic — 10,000 ofuda wolf talismans were issued to worshippers traveling from afar to the mountaintop shrine seeking the supernatural powers of oinusama, or the mystical wolves considered god’s messengers.
Once endemic to the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, the now-extinct Japanese wolf was historically worshipped as deities offering farmers protection against crop raiders such as wild boar and deer. Now they were being dispatched to fight the invisible foreign creatures wreaking havoc.
“It had to be the wolf, the natural enemy of the fox, that could defeat the foreign beast. So it was inevitable that Mitsumine Shrine of Bushu Chichibu that deifies the wolf as the messenger of the god Yamato Takeru was cast in the spotlight,” writes historian Satoshi Takahashi in his 2005 book “Bakumatsu Orugi” (“Bakumatsu Orgy”), which takes a close look at folk traditions people relied on to fight cholera at the time.
The 20th century and the rapid progress in transportation technology saw Japan being hit by global flu pandemics, the most deadly being the Spanish flu that killed tens of millions around the world between 1918 and 1920. According to some estimates, 450,000 perished in Japan at the time with an additional 280,000 believed to have died on the Korean Peninsula and in Taiwan, which were under colonial Japanese rules at the time.
Rumors and false claims began to circulate as the government and scientists scrambled for a solution to the sickness, with suggested “cures” including swallowing powder made from burnt rats.
A century later, similar disinformation is prospering, this time via the internet.
Users going on Twitter and other social media platforms have been spreading unsubstantiated remedies for the coronavirus, including drinking hot water and vitamin D, while more bizarre theories suggest that granite and the ultraviolet rays it emanates are useful in killing the pathogen.
The Consumer Affairs Agency has been issuing dozens of warnings to businesses advertising health supplements, air cleaners and other products as effective against the virus, while fake reports of infection have led to trains halting and events being canceled.
Amid the deluge of disputable information, an obscure, legendary Japanese creature believed to prophesize harvests and epidemics has surfaced on social media, with users posting images of the monster amabie in hope of an early end to the pandemic.
“The only documented record of amabie is a kawaraban woodblock-printed news sheet from the Edo Period preserved at the Kyoto University Library,” says Eishun Nagano, a director at the Fukui Prefectural Archives in Fukui Prefecture and an expert on amabie and it’s likely variant, amabiko.
The woodblock print from 1846 describes an official sent to investigate rumors of an unidentified, glowing object appearing every night in the sea off Higo Province in modern day Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan. Upon arrival, a creature emerged and introduced itself as amabie, saying there would be plentiful harvest for six years, but that disease would also spread. Before disappearing back into the waters, the creature urged the official to swiftly draw a picture of it and show it to other people.
Depicted as having long hair, a beak, three legs and scales from the neck down, Nagano says the amabie was likely a misspelling of amabiko, a yokai monster of similar characteristics.
“The amabiko follows an identical storyline. It is said to offer prophecies of abundant harvests and epidemics, and prescribes the drawing of its likeness to defend against sickness,” he says. “But for some reason, the amabie became far more popular.”
Circulating under the hashtag #amabiechallenge in Japanese, countless netizens are posting drawings, sculptures, cosplays and other interpretations of amabie on social media in good humor, or perhaps to diffuse the mounting panic over the ongoing pandemic. The health ministry has even featured the monster in a tweet to raise awareness of the dangers of COVID-19.
Among the most shared is a short, viral animated clip by Twitter user @SackZack_ of a microscopic amabie destroying the spiked sphere that we’ve come to visually associate with the coronavirus.
Swimming under a lens, the goldfish-like amabie takes a deep breath, gathers a ball of energy and flings it toward its enemy in true anime fashion. The virus explodes into oblivion with a burst of light and, for a moment, the viewer can savor a rare victory in the fight against this scourge.
If only reality was that simple.