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Aka-e Talisman Prints — Shôki Therapy

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

Talismen of the City

Readers of Daruma serious about their health could not have failed to see the lead-off article in Daruma #40 on the obscure yet fascinating subject of disease prevention prints. Based, like many of Daruma’s feature pieces, on an unheralded provincial collection squirreled away far removed from any standard museum-hopper's circuit, this piece opened with a dramatic illustration of a smallpox print (hôsô-e), also known as a "red print."

"Red prints" (a.k.a., aka-e) get their name from the Japanese tradition of coloring substantially in red any image that was designed to be used as a talisman (ofuda) to ward off smallpox. This was done to placate the pox god  — who was thought to be partial to red  — and to mimic the color the purple skin rash turns when recovery is at hand.

Shôki therapy

In addition to the red shift, an element common to many aka-e is the presence of the folk god Shôki, a martial character of Chinese origin who also answers to the names "Demon-Queller"  and "Plague-Dueller." 

Presumably, the presence in the house of a defiant warrior spirit like Shôki would inspire the patient to fight off the smallpox disease, a terrifying contagion that achieved epidemic proportions in Japan in 1824, 1835, and again in 1842.

Japanese images of Shôki often show him confronting a nasty-looking little demon  — choking it, impaling it, or simply shooing it away. In fact, his job was to keep away from one’s home all manner of evil spirits and misfortune.

Like nighttime marauders, for example. In fig. 1, a chûban design c. 1840 by the Osaka artist Hasegawa Sadanobu I (1809-79), note how Shôki, sword drawn, stands guard in front of a house as three thieving miscreants slink off in the gloom.

The title of the print, Muchu Shôki shutsu gen no zu (Shôki appearing in a dream), is a classic formulation based on how the folk god first appeared to a Chinese emperor. What Sadanobu has actually drawn, however, is Shôki arising from a vapor cloud emanating from a small rectangle positioned above the entrance.

This rectangle is meant to signify the location of the dwelling's talisman. Today, Japanese are likely to have their protective guardian (rarely Shôki anymore) inside the house  — or perhaps represented by a decorative tile on the roof   — but in the past one it was common to affix a paper ofuda, picked up annually at a temple, above the entryway.

Yet more disposable ukiyo-e

The Daruma #40 article emphasizes the exceeding scarcity of surviving aka-e. Sharing the fate of most Japanese talismen, Shôki images would have invariably suffered wear and tear from exposure, and then  — regardless of their efficaciousness  — been set on fire or floated down a river.

The result is that two decades of fairly diligent seeking has unearthed no other Shôki print from Osaka that is a true aka-e  — that is, a purely talismanic print, not a thinly-disguised kabuki actor print.

(The latter were also printed in red, and though published to commemorate a segment of a quick-change dance sequence executed on stage by an actor in a Shôki costume, must have often been pressed into service as talismen. The Shôki image is regularly missing from sets of quick-change prints!)

Aka-e fig. 1
Fig. 1

The Red and the Black

Based on the look of other types of disposable ofuda for the home, like those for fire prevention, one can  assume that most aka-e were simple monochromatic affairs  — Osakans, after all, are nothing if not pragmatic  — printed by the cheaper, one-block stencil method (kappazuri-e).

This makes fig. 1, a high-quality, multi-block brocade print (nishiki-e), all the more curious. Granted, the style of the signature  — the word okonomi  (by special request) before Sadanobu's name  — implies the work was commissioned, but such a signature was a fairly common ruse to make a design appear non-commercial and special.

The puzzle remains: Was this show of extravagance intended for entryway duty as the ofuda itself (folded up inside a paper wrapper), or, more likely, was it meant solely as a one-off conversation piece, charmingly referential to the ofuda tradition?

Regardless, this particular Shôki somehow got himself protectively mounted into a collector's album (note the crease along the sheet's left edge), and now  — war, fire, cultural indifference and other plagues having been overcome  — he continues to repel all intruders, including our inquisitive minds.

Note: An extensive Sadanobu website (numerous photos but text in Japanese only) exists at

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 51, Summer 2006. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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