Charms and amulets have been a popular means of protection against illness for the longest time. In the past, such a misfortune was considered to have supernatural origin, as well as natural causes. Belief in supernatural forces, such as the evil eye or witchcraft, was deeply rooted into the population. Similar beliefs existed in Japan who came up with its own way of protection against diseases. The image of Shoki, a famous demon hunter who fought against illness is one of the most popular and enduring, and today it is also a common tattoo motif.
An interesting episode in the history of this character happened in Japan in 1846 when the city of Edo (today’s Tokyo) saw an outbreak of smallpox. Suddenly, images of Shoki the demon hunter painted in red were displayed in and outside households with the belief that he would offer protection against the disease. Smallpox was thought to be caused by demons or evil spirits called hosogami who wanted vengeance for wrongdoings when they were alive. At the same time, many old medical textbooks stated that red light would alleviate the pain of the smallpox disease and if the rashes turned red, then the patient will be likely to recover and become immune. As a result, red became the colour of choice to chase away demons and people started displaying images of Shoki and objects in red to ward off evil and contagion.
The legend of Shoki comes from the 8th century Tang dynasty in China, when Shoki was known as Zhong Kui. A medical student and a dedicated learner, he completed his studies and hoped to become a doctor to the emperor. He passed the examination with exceptional score, making it to the last selection stage which was to have an interview with the emperor himself. When meeting Shoki, the emperor was taken back by his fearsome appearance and felt reluctant to appoint Shoki as his doctor. The disappointment of failing to become the emperor’s physician drove Shoki to take his own life. Soon after this event, the emperor fell gravely ill and had a nightmare in which he was tormented by demons of his illness. To his rescue came the figure who confronted the demons to defeat them. The emperor asked this figure who he was, to which he replied ‘I am Shoki’. In the morning, the emperor woke up all cured and deeply moved by his dream, he commanded that an image of his healer be painted and used to keep all other illnesses at bay throughout the empire. Such was his dedication to studying and serving the emperor, that Shoki’s spirit swore to chase away demons and banish diseases even in death.
This story of gratitude and devotion enjoyed immense popularity in Japan, where it was adapted in folk mythology and Zhong Kui became Shoki, the demon hunter. When smallpox threatened the population of Edo and Japan in the 19th century, the population was quick to react and associated the powerful image of Shoki with protection.
Shoki is often depicted as a large bearded figure, wearing the cap and robes of a Chinese scholar with huge black boots and he usually battles a demon with his sword. The demon hunter’s image also became popular during the ceremonies surrounding Boys’ Festival, a national holiday that is now celebrated more universally as Children’s Day on the 5th of May every year. In ancient times, this day was associated with evil spirits and bad luck while children represented the majority of the population affected by diseases such as smallpox. Various rituals came to be used as protection, such as flying carp fish banners called nobori outside of homes of families that had male children, as well as putting up images of Shoki that would safeguard the children and help them reach adulthood in good health.
The Edo period (1603 – 1868) saw the expansion of printed material, which brought public awareness to Japanese literary and artistic heritage, as well as themes imported from China. Images of Shoki can be seen in early woodblock prints in the tall narrow format of hashira-e (pillar prints) that were originally used as decoration of the supporting pillars in traditional Japanese houses. This tall format helped to depict the imposing figure of Shoki the demon hunter, filling the narrow borders and increasing his image as a brave, unstoppable hero.
As a symbol of overwhelming might, Shoki became an ideal role model for young boys in the warrior society which dominated Japan throughout most of the last millennia. In the visual culture of the Edo period, such imagery would have made a practical gift for a young boy facing a difficult situation such as sickness, with Shoki representing the power to push on and defeat any enemy before him.
Shoki tattoos serve a similar purpose at a very close level: one’s own skin. There are many examples that show how tattoos act as a protective charm for their wearers in Japan, from firefighters with tattoos of dragons and carp fish as water elements to ward off the danger of fire, to Shoki as a symbol of study and victory against illness.
Text: Geanina Spinu for Japanese Gallery Kensington, London