the online database of Japanese folklore

Yakubyō gami

疫病神
やくびょうがみ

Translation: pestilence spirit
Alternate names: ekibyō gami, yakushin, ekiki, gyōyakujin
Habitat: human-inhabited areas

Appearance: Yakubyō gami are a class of evil spirits which spread infectious diseases and misfortune. They are formless spirits invisible to the human eye. Their true, unseen forms are often depicted in art as a myriad of grotesque monsters resembling oni. On rare occasions when yakubyō gami appear to humans, they often take the form of elderly priests or old hags.

Many kinds of yakubyō gami exist—for example, amazake babā, bake kujira, kaze no kami, keukegen, korōri, momonjii, and yonaki babā, to name a few.

Behavior: Yakubyō gami travel from person to person and place to place, spreading sickness and misfortune wherever they go. They haunt a single person or a household for a short time. Once their victims have been infected, they move on to a new target.

Interactions: People have invented many ways to protect themselves from yakubyō gami. Images of protective spirits—such as amabie, baku, hakutaku, hōnengame, jinja hime, kotobuki, Shōki, and so on—were often hung in houses with the belief that they would ward off yakubyō gami. Buddhist and Shinto talismans—omamori and ofuda—were also used in this way. Holy ropes called shimenawa were strung around trees at the borders of villages to prevent evil spirits from entering.

In eastern Japan, on the eighth night of the second and twelfth months in the old lunisolar calendar, two yōkai—hitotsume kozō and mikari baba—would travel from house to house to record people’s misdeeds. Their report would be given to a yakubyō gami who would then come down to each village and apportion misfortune and sickness based on the report. One-eyed yōkai like hitotsume kozō were said to fear objects with many “eyes”—such as sieves and baskets—and so these were hung outside of homes on these nights to scare them away and prevent them from reporting anything to the yakubyō gami.

People have also tried to discourage appease yakubyō gami by honoring them as gods. Offerings of food were regularly performed by priests and government officials in an effort to prevent epidemics. Many of today’s popular festivals and celebrations have their roots in rituals designed to appease yakubyō gami.

Origin: Yakubyō gami are historically among the most feared yōkai of all. They frequently appeared in folklore and art during the second half of the 19th century when several epidemics struck Japan. However, the belief that sickness and misfortune are caused by invisible spirits has always been a central part of Japanese folklore. Before germ theory revolutionized our understanding of infectious diseases, people had no knowledge of microorganisms that cause disease. The way sickness spread from person to person must have seemed very much like an invisible spirit was traveling from house to house and infecting people.

Legends: In 1820 in Edo, a samurai managed to capture a yakubyō gami as it was trying to enter his house. In exchange for its freedom, the spirit promised to spare everyone in the samurai’s family from sickness and misfortune. It gave him a written contract agreeing to never try to enter the samurai’s house again. Afterwards, the samurai’s story and the entire contents of the contract were circulated widely in the newspapers with the instructions to use it as a talisman. Before long, houses all over Edo each had their own printed copy of the yakubyō gami’s contract.

Alphabetical list of yōkai