the online database of Japanese folkore



Translation: smallpox god
Alternate names: hōsōshin, imomyōjin, and other regional names
Habitat: areas infected with smallpox

Appearance: Hōsōgami are a type of yakubyōgami responsible for causing smallpox. They appear in many forms, but are often depicted as small, savage demons.

Behavior: Hōsōgami travel from town to town, infecting entire communities of people with smallpox. They have fearsome tempers, which are reflected in the ferocity and virulence of smallpox. They are afraid of dogs, and they hate the color red. This is because the color red was considered to be a symbol of good health, and a red rash covering the body was a good sign of recovery from smallpox.

Interactions: In houses where smallpox infections appeared, family members erected smallpox shrines and begged the hōsōgami to spare their loved ones. Although hōsōgami were feared and considered to be evil gods, it was believed that–like other yakubyō gami–they could be appeased with rituals and offerings. Red woodblock prints called akae were hung around the house to scare them off. All sorts of objects were believed to have protective powers, such as red-papered priest staves and red clothing. Other talismans included dolls and toys in the shape of dogs, owls, sea breams, cows, and the red-haired yōkai shōjō. Images of Daruma, Shōki, and Kintarō were also popular charms.

Some gods were seen as particularly effective against smallpox. Shrines to the warrior Minamoto no Tametomo were thought to be effective at keeping hōsōgami away. When Minamoto no Tametomo fled to Hachijōjima during the Hōgen Rebellion, smallpox ravaged every part of the country except for Hachijōhima. It was believed that he drove the sickness from those islands. The Shintō god of healing Sukunabikona was also a popular target of worship for those afflicted with smallpox.

Because smallpox affects entire communities rather than just individuals, a number of community rituals called hōsōgami okuri (“sending off the hōsōgami”) were developed in response to outbreaks. Bands of people playing drums, flutes, and bells would parade around the streets performing songs and dances to ward off the sickness. Small wayshrines and stone pagodas were erected at the outskirts of villages to keep them from entering.

In some areas, hōsōgami were not viewed as the cause of smallpox but as the saviors of people from the disease. In such cases, smallpox was seen as a physical manifestation of the evil inside of the human body. The infected would pray to hōsōgami for protection and salvation. Survivors of the disease would offer thanks to the hōsōgami for saving them.

Origin: Smallpox is believed to have made its first appearance in Japan in the Nara Period, a time of great exchange with continental Asia. The first recorded smallpox epidemic in Japan, which crossed over from the Korean peninsula to Japan in 735 CE, is described in  the Heian Period history record Shoku nihongi. Japan’s earliest outbreaks started in Dazaifu and from there spread to the rest of the country. Dazaifu was an important center of politics and international exchange, making it an ideal port of entry for smallpox.

Not all outbreaks of smallpox were caused by hōsōgami. Dazaifu is also famous for being the home of the exiled scholar Sugawara no Michizane. After Michizane’s death, an outbreak of smallpox and the deaths of a number of his rivals, including the emperor, were blamed on his restless spirit. It was believed that Michizane had become a tatarigami–a curse-spreading god. His curse ended when his titles were posthumously restored and he was enshrined as the kami Tenjin.

Legends: An eyewitness account of a hōsōgami was reported in Nisshin shinjishi, a Meiji Period newspaper. A rickshaw driver in Honjo, Tōkyō reported that he gave a ride to a young girl about 14 or 15 years old. She asked him to drive her from Midorichō to Asakusa. Midway through the ride it began to grow dark, so the rickshaw driver pulled over to light a lantern. However, when he stopped, he noticed that the girl had vanished from the back of his rickshaw. In her place, there was a rice barrel lid with a red staff mounted to it. He recognized the barrel lid with the red staff as a symbol of a hōsōgami.

The young girl he had given a ride to must have been a hōsōgami using the rickshaw system to find her next victim!

Alphabetical list of yōkai