Corona Cartoons, Japan

The first lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 in Japan was on January 16, only the second case reported outside of China. By the end of the month, China would confirm cases in all 26 of its provinces. On February 4, the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which had previously stopped in Hong Kong, was quarantined in the Port of Yokohama, bobbing ominously just offshore of a sprawling metropolitan region with a population of close to 40 million for over a month. Out of 3711 passengers and crew, 712 eventually tested positive for novel coronavirus. South Korea, meanwhile, had begun to enact its own emergency measures to stem a local outbreak that would peak in March. On February 28, the northernmost island of Hokkaido became the first Japanese prefecture to declare a state of emergency, well ahead of the selective one instituted by the central government on April 7 for Tokyo and six prefectures and the nationwide one on April 16. The Summer Olympics, after much understandable ado, was finally postponed on March 24. Only then, suspiciously, did the number of confirmed cases in Japan begin to rise significantly.

To date, Japan has had approximately 20,000 confirmed cases and 1000 deaths as a direct result of COVID-19, though with a testing regime that is far more limited than that of any other developed nation. When the academic year started on April 1, many schools reluctantly reconvened, and most colleges moved online. Teleworking was slow to catch on, even for companies for whom that was a practical option. The nationwide state of emergency was lifted on May 25, allowing businesses and people to operate more freely, though Japanese law is such that most controls were voluntary even under the emergency order. Both the infection and the mortality rate in Japan has been low. Various reasons have been floated for this: higher standards of personal hygiene, existing habits of wearing masks, fewer underlying medical conditions among the population, focusing on clusters rather than broad-based monitoring, blocking visitors from hotspots in China early on, citizens rigorously policing one another. Unemployment has, likewise, been relatively low, rising officially from 1% to 2.5% of the population, though if you include those on furlough, the number rises to 11.5%. Whatever the reasons or exact numbers, the fact stands that COVID-19 has not been the disaster that it is for many other countries, at least not on the surface, at least not yet.

This is reflected in the generally easy-going and practical nature of the cultural response. The present two-part essay looks specifically at manga and manga-adjacent media dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, from manga- and anime-based memes and single-page comics-format parodies, to charming cartoon diaries, admonitory medical manga, classical political cartoons, and revivals of older pandemic-themed comics. Such “corona manga” demonstrate the ubiquity of cartooning as a language in Japan as well as its fluidity vis-à-vis neighboring formats like infographics, broadsheets, video games, and memes. Compared to the urgent, soul-searching, and voluminous work that followed in the wake of the truly catastrophic tsunami and nuclear meltdowns of 2011—a touchstone for some artists dealing with the pandemic—the examples surveyed below can appear trivial and naïve even when they are caring and socially-engaged. Yet, it is precisely due to their frequently diminutive nature that they are arguably better tailored to respond productively to the smaller and more personal problems of the current moment.

Cartoon-related responses to the virus are bound to grow in variety and complexity in the coming weeks and months. This article and its sequel aim to survey only what was produced in the first four months of the outbreak in Japan, from February to the end of the emergency order in late May. I included as many images as possible below, but have been cataloging them more thoroughly on my Twitter account @mangaberg. Social media, after all, is where this is really happening. Since this essay is a work in progress, written on the fly as time allowed and information came in, any corrections of fact, disputes of interpretation, or leads on other examples would be most appreciated. Please share them in the comments section below.

Amabie kawaraban print, 1846. Kyoto University Library.

1. The Amabie Boom

We have to begin with Amabie, Japan’s greatest contribution to global “corona culture,” for better or worse.

In 1846, a mermaid-like creature with three legs, long hair, and a beak was spotted off the coast of Kumamoto in Kyushu. It gave its name as Amabie, promised a good harvest for the next six years, then said the following before swimming away: “Should an epidemic come, draw me and show me to the people.” This according to a period kawaraban (printed newssheet) reporting this ominous occurrence and depicting the strange creature. The print was known to folklorists. But it wasn’t until this past February, when a sample was excavated from the archives of Kyoto University and shared in the news and on social media, that the Amabie ascended from obscurity to become a major figure in the vast and beloved pantheon of supernatural creatures known as yokai.

First illustrators and amateur artists began posting their own renditions of Amabie on social media. Quickly, anyone capable of wielding a pen was doing so. “By early March, many of these Amabies had been retweeted tens of thousands of times, including by newfound fans outside Japan. Amabie’s centuries-old directive to share its visage had taken on a new relevance in the era of social media,” wrote Matt Alt in a handy article for The New Yorker (April 9), titled “From Japan, A Mascot for the Pandemic,” which itself further fueled the cute yokai’s global proliferation. A number of name cartoonists have drawn their own version, including Itō Junji, Okazaki Mari, Saibara Rieko, and Yokoyama Yūichi. My favorite, however, is by a minor illustrator active on Twitter named Kanchōtarō @kanchotaro001. It is based on Tsuge Yoshiharu’s legendary short story “Nejishiki” (1968), with the yokai rather than the injured youth coming out of the sea, beneath an oversize rendering of the virus rather than the shadow of a warplane. Considering that Tsuge’s phantasmagorical surrealism stems directly from his time spent as an assistant at Mizuki Pro in the mid and late ‘60s, where yokai abounded, Kanchōtarō’s riff is art historically appropriate, even if unintentionally so.

Amabie, by Itō Junji (May 1) and Yokoyama Yūichi (April 20).
Amabie, by Okazaki Mari (March 22) and Kanchōtarō (April 20).

As with most other phenomena related to yokai over the past half-century, cartoonist Mizuki Shigeru’s influence stands behind Amabie’s recent apotheosis. He began including the Amabie in his yokai anthologies in the 1980s, beginning with volume two of Mizuki Shigeru’s Yokai Dictionary (Mizuki Shigeru no zoku yokai jiten) in 1984 and continuing with Japan Yokai Encyclopedia (Nihon yokai daizen) from Kodansha in 1991, which has gone into multiple paperback editions. A bronze statue of the creature based on Mizuki’s image was installed in the early 2000s on Dōgojima, a small island off the coast of where the Mizuki Shigeru Memorial Museum is (and hundreds of miles away from where the Amabie was reportedly cited in the 19th century) in Tottori prefecture.

Mizuki Shigeru, Amabie (1984)

Amabie was, thus, like most other yokai that now circulate in Japan and increasingly globally, part of the commercial exploitation of Japan’s rural folklore within entertainment media, merchandising, and domestic tourism that commenced in earnest with the explosion of Mizuki’s Kitarō manga and anime series in the mid ‘60s. The affective relationship between people and commodity fetishes that this industry successfully nurtured for commercial ends has rooted so deeply that it now shapes the way people respond even to social and health crises. Other epidemic-auguring yokai have also circulated, but in a far more limited way and largely only in their original 19th century form. In a collaboration with the Hokusai Museum in Tokyo, cartoonist Shiriagari Kotobuki embellished Hokusai’s Red Shōki, a painting of the Chinese demon-queller created in 1846 (the same year Amabie appeared) to combat a smallpox outbreak, by adding a smushed coronavirus under his foot. The image has been available for free download and mock apotropaic dissemination through Art Scape’s website since mid May.

“In modern-day Japan, few if any seriously believe that sharing the picture of Amabie the yokai is going to stave off COVID-19. Hygiene and isolation are the orders of the day,” writes Alt. “But while these practices may keep us healthy, happy is another matter. . . In helping us connect with one another in our isolation, Amabie might well be fulfilling her prophecy after all.” The medium really does seem to be the message in this case. I wonder, however, if we can push this further, highlighting not just the “social” of social media, as Alt does, but also the “viral” of viral trends and the almost compulsive need in Japan (as we learned after the 2011 disasters) to combat anxieties and pubic hardships—and dampen political critique—with incantations of “hope.”

When the anti-viral Amabie went “viral,” it almost seemed designed to subvert the pathological metaphors which have long informed how we talk about networks and the spread of information across them. It is curious, in contrast, that though a number of people on Twitter pointed out that Mizuki’s Backbeard (Bakkubeaado)—a giant airborne black mass with a single eyeball and radiating nerve endings, based on a Odilon Redon lithograph and introduced into the Kitarō universe in 1966 as the leader of the Western yokai—looks an awful lot like the coronavirus itself, those tweets only circulated in the thousands, with limited elaboration in the form of fan renditions or memes. Though earliest such tweet I can find during the current pandemic is dated January 26, before Amabie took off, people have pointed out the resemblance as far back as 2013.

Mizuki Shigeru, Backbeard (date unknown).

Granted, Backbeard was not originally pathogenic, nor has he ever issued orders to be copied and disseminated. But I wonder if there’s not something else going on here, related to implicit rules of “hygiene” guiding certain kinds of social media fads and public allergies to negative thinking. It is as if, during an actual pandemic, overtly “viral” images (like Backbeard) are taboo, in the same way that images of illness, hospitalization, and death are. Their “spread” must be controlled, not only by limiting their numerical proliferation, but additionally neutralizing them through what we might call “vaccinal” counter-images, like the Amabie. While this is made literal in the handful of posted drawings pitting the talismanic Amabie (or Kitarō) against the viral Backbeard, it is more deeply reflected in how the Amabie boom as a whole turned social media exchange—with its ambivalent “pathologies” of time-sucking triviality, frequently depressing virtuality, and susceptibility to bullying—into something unimpeachably positive.

The Amabie boom also fits a narrative pattern. Whether movies, novels, or comics, in pandemic fiction the heroes are often in a race against time to find a vaccine. As we now know, living in a real-life pandemic is both more complicated and less dramatic than what’s shown in most movies, at least for those of us not on the frontline at hospitals and nursing homes. Nonetheless, this vaccine-on-the-horizon trope shaped how many of us, the news media, and certain people in charge processed the spread and subjugation of COVID-19, at least in the beginning. There is no doubt that Amabie-sharing has provided people a sense of community, as Alt says. But I think it also serves a narratological function, as the embodiment of this hope for immunity before a real vaccine arrives. It is the artistic corollary to wishful thinking about herd immunity or gaining antibodies without getting sick. It expresses a desire of how we want this story to play out, above and beyond any evidence of how it may actually play out.

Of course, for Amabie images to function in this way, they have to circulate through channels that are virtual rather than physical—hence the importance of digital transmission in this paradigm—for if they were physical, they could become literally viral as vehicles of the virus’s spread. Though the text of the 19th century kawaraban states otherwise, the skeptic in me wonders if the Amabie’s original instruction to “draw me and show me to the people” wasn’t actually a subterfuge. There was no internet in the 19th century, after all. Transmission of its image would have been by hand. Increased contract would have meant increased infection. There is something menacing in the very fact of a beast appearing out of the blue to warn about death in the same breath that they mention bounty. Perhaps there is something “viral” at the heart of Amabie, after all. Perhaps, as Nekomagawa Yoshio, an illustrator who specializes in Mizuki parodies, hints in an original Mizuki manga panel embellished to show Backbeard in Amabie cosplay (March 10 @yoshiwo2006), the adorable yokai is really a virus in vaccine’s clothing.

Nekomagawa Yoshio, Backbeard Cosplaying as Amabie (March 10).

2. Abenomask

The Amabie boom hardly constitutes the only cartoon-related response to the virus in Japan, nor the only one that has trended widely on social media. A distant second in popularity has been #abenomask, meaning literally “Abe’s mask” and riffing on “Abenomics,” which refers to Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s heavily self-touted economic policies, coined during the 2012 general election. The hashtag was launched on April 1 after the Prime Minister promised two reusable cloth facemasks to every family and nothing else (the government’s generosity has since grown, marginally), initially at the already high cost of 20 billion JPY (approximately 188 million USD), but which rose to 46.6 billion JPY by the time the program concluded in early June.

One frontrunning meme, widely reported on English language outlets like the Japan Times, showed a photo of Abe with two masks wrapped around his face, one silencing him, the other blinding him (April 1 @reiwasoku_hou). Also popular were recycled stills from Miyazaki Hayao’s animated films Whisper of the Heart and Spirited Away showing parents wearing masks while their unmasked children look on pathetically. Most iconic was illustrator Muramura Jin’s parody of Sazae—a manga and anime about a typical Japanese family, popular since the late ‘40s—showing the eight members of the household divided into two rows of four (including the family cat) with a single mask strapped around their collective heads (April 1 @punxjk). The average family size in Japan, by the way, is 2.7 people—not including pets.

Reiwa Sokuhou, Abenomask (April 1).
Muramura Jin, Abenomask (April 1).

These satires are straightforward enough to have circulated outside Japan with little explanation. More oblique, however, and perhaps more indicative of how political discourse and cultural reporting is shaped by the “fake news” cycle of social media in Japan, is the stir caused by a seemingly innocuous drawing on the Abenomask theme by superstar manga author Urasawa Naoyuki. Posted on April 2 @urasawa_naoki, it simply shows a cheery Abe wearing a smallish mask. The vast majority of replies on Twitter were positive. Many are neutral. “How is this even satire?” some ask. Yet major news outlets, desperate for a story, highlighted the negative responses, one describing Urasawa has having been “viciously criticized” (Tōyō Keizai) by “net right-wingers.” The criticisms they cite are some of the weakest trolling I have ever read. “Urasawa sensei, as a big fan of yours, this makes me very sad. The Prime Minister is doing his best, and this is all you can say? This is no time to make fun of the situation,” went one response. “All the honor which you have accrued over your long career has been swept away by this one picture,” went another. Most are just variants of “Zannen desu, I am disappointed in you, sensei” – which I take more simply as an index of how allergic some Japanese are to the crossing of art and politics.

Abenomask, by Urasawa Naoki (April 2) and Shimin Rengō Wakayama Kumano (April 3).

Which, of course, is an odd allergy for an Urasawa fan to have, like a cat lover with cat allergies. If one were inclined to “over-read” Urasawa’s Abenomask image, there is ample context to do so. The author’s most famous manga, after all, the multi-volume 20th Century Boys (1999-2006), is about a religious cult that, intent on world domination, unleashes an amped-up Ebola-like virus that makes people immediately bleed to death upon contraction, first in London, San Francisco, Osaka and Tokyo, and then around the world. Judging from my perusals of the internet and Twitter, the handful of people who have reread 20th Century Boys through the current pandemic only do so in a passing way. In the replies to Urasawa’s Abenomask cartoon, some have recommended substituting the surgical mask with the full face wrap that Friend, the cult leader, wears in 20th Century Boys. One anti-Abe citizens group in Wakayama prefecture posted a photoshopped photograph of Abe wearing a mask vertically with the Friend logo emblazoned on it (April 3 @siminwakakuma). Pointing out resonances between the Abe government’s delay in cancelling the Olympics and Friend’s recreation of the 1970 World’s Expo in preparation for an apocalyptic viral outbreak, one commentator in the thread to Urasawa’s Abenomask cartoon asked rhetorically, “You so-called fans who say you’re disappointed [by this drawing], how the hell have you been reading Urasawa’s comics this whole time?” Coincidentally, when the government masks began arriving to people’s homes in the second half of April, many commented on how pitifully small they were—as if Urasawa had called it weeks earlier with his petit mask.

Fe, The Three Wrong Masketeers (March 25).

For the most part, Abenomask humor petered out fairly quickly, with people turning their creative attention instead to fashioning their own masks out of such materials as fabric, paper, clear office file folders, and odd items like rubber fish. You can buy masks with images of famous cartoonists on them, my collaborator Baron Yoshimoto among them. This, of course, is not just a Japanese phenomenon; the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets masks immediately come to mind. There must be legions of similar examples around the world. But even before the Abenomask hashtag went viral, cartoon-formatted jokes about masks were making the rounds. On March 25, for example, one Fe @fnocef posted on Twitter a page from the popular food manga Oishinbo showing “The Three Ramen Musketeers” (ramen sanjūshi, three great ramen cooks) photoshopped as “The Three Wrong Masketeers” (dame masuku sanjūshi) who wear surgical masks improperly: the below-the-nose style, the below-the-chin style, and the take-it-off-when-you-sneeze style. Some people on Twitter suggested printing out the image and using it as a public service poster. This format—the one-page paneled comic that looks like a page out of a longer work, but is complete in itself—has been popular for satirizing the virus and other social events in mock dramatic ways through established genre codes.

3. The Three Cs

Cartooning as the go-to language in Japan can be seen even in public health material produced by the government. Sponsored by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare and circulating in different ways since mid March, the instructional inserts that came with the mailed packages containing the government-issued masks use simple, cartoon-like infographics illustrating the importance of avoiding the “mitsu no mitsu” (“the three too-close-nesses,” oftentimes “sanmitsu”), known as the “three Cs” in English: closed rooms, crowded places, and close-contact conversation.

Pages from government-issued public health materials (mid-late March).

This—physical social distancing—has provided greater fodder than masks for satirists in Japan. After all, in Japan masks are not the political flashpoint they have become, embarrassingly, in the United States. Japanese have long worn them as a matter of course when they have a cough or a sniffle, when the pollen count is high, or when they don’t have time to put on makeup or brush their teeth when they leave the house in the morning. Social distancing recommendations, on the other hand, have caused serious tensions in this densely populated country that is not particularly equipped or inclined to centralize work and schooling activities at home, or stockpile for the long haul, or indulge in any pause of the business and academic rat race. This can be seen in some “corona manga.”

Nitta Sen, Stay Home (April 8).

Take, for example, Nitta Sen’s prophetic single-page broadside (April 8 @nittasen), inspired by the famous shōjo manga The Rose of Versailles, a romance set during the French Revolution. Instead of the heartthrob Oscar wooing the court with his good looks and manly courage, a violinist with luscious locks labelled “Instagram celebrity” entertains his followers with mellifluous notes and a verbal appeal to stay safe by staying inside. Below, “the Twitter masses” explode with outrage about the presumptive class privilege of being told to work from home and being made into vehicles of the virus’s spread when they are forced to move back home with their parents in the countryside after no longer being able to pay rent in the city. “Pick up your weapons (your smartphones) and burn down the aristocracy!!” the Twitter horde yells at the end.

What Nitta’s comic is referring to is popular singer-songwriter Hoshino Gen’s viral song and video “Dancing on the Inside” (“Uchide de odorō”), uploaded to Instagram on April 6 and now with more than 3 million views. Through lyrics about dancing and singing at home individually but together, Hoshino invited people to post their own renditions of the song or use the video (which shows Hoshino with his guitar singing alone in a room) to make their own stay-at-home videos, which many people did, including many celebrities. If Nitta’s parody was already a rare statement on class privileges during the pandemic in Japan, its critique of the “aristocracy” accidentally gained a specific referent a few days later, on April 12, when Abe came under a new round of fire for posting his own rendition of “Dancing on the Inside” on Twitter: a split-screen video with Hoshino on one side and the Prime Minister relaxing at home, sipping coffee, petting his long haired dachshund, and reading a book on the other. A wide variety of parody videos ensued, as well as a barrage of news media and social media criticisms of Japan’s leadership being tone deaf and blinded by their privileges. The vacuity of Abe’s botched PR attempt was proved the very next day when he and his wife flew to Oita in Kyushu with a group of forty VIPs.

One of the sharpest satires of Abe’s video was a pencil-drawn political cartoon by Ellie Okamoto, a young painter who exhibits with the esteemed Mizuma Gallery in Tokyo. Posted on Twitter the day of Abe’s video (April 12 @OkmtEli), Okamoto’s cartoon shows a slippered Abe with his dog and coffee looking quizzically out through his living room’s sliding glass doors, beyond which stand a shadowy horde comprising a medical worker, a cook, a rock musician, a beleaguered white-collar worker on a train, and an infant staring menacingly into the comforts of the Prime Minister’s self-quarantine. A week earlier (April 4), Okamoto had posted a cartoon showing Abe wearing a facemask and preparing to don a second, while his vision is fractured behind five-ringed spectacles, in reference to the Japanese government’s playing down of the virus until the Olympics were finally cancelled on March 24.

Okamoto Ellie, Dance at Home (April 12).

Though praised by the likes of Aida Makoto, a fellow Mizuma artist who has produced his share of anti-Abe art, Okamoto quickly stopped posting political cartoons once the trolls started swinging their clubs. Scrolling through the replies to Okamoto’s stay-at-home cartoon, it quickly becomes apparent that the flak Urasawa received was dust motes in comparison. The negative comments range from comically literal readings of the cartoon to personal defamations and implied threats of violence against the artist. A large number accuse Okamoto of promoting illegal behavior, most of all “intimidation” (kyōhaku) and illegally trespassing and entering into the Prime Minister’s mansion (a young woman did just that a week earlier, on April 4, carrying a machete, tear gas, and a can of gasoline, but reportedly not for political reasons). A few even accuse her of inciting “terrorism.” Many remark that the congregated mob is not respecting the “three Cs,” thus only contributing to virus’s spread. Some criticize Okamoto for misusing her artistic talents; others dismiss her drawing for being poor, ugly, and even repulsive. Self-professed rightwing nationalists are aggressive, threatening to report Okamoto to the police or inflict retaliatory violence, the latter through a still of the video game Detroit: Become Human showing a man holding a gun to the face of another while stating something to the effect of (translating back from a subtitle), “No, YOU step the fuck back.” Fearful for her safety and concerned that the noise will negatively impact her painting and illustration career, Okamoto has sadly but understandably chosen not to post other satirical cartoons that she has drawn. There are times when I think Japanese artists are overly cautious about political blowback and tend to self-censor too quickly. But especially after the shutdown of the Aichi Triennale last summer under social media and phone threats of bodily harm and arson—a clear-cut case of free political expression being severely circumscribed by rightwing trolls tacitly backed by a rightist government—it’s hard to maintain such skepticism.

Takuzo, Mitsu desu (April 11).

Another frequently-parodied subject is Tokyo governor Koike Yasuko and her contradictory stance on the virus. Though Koike was one of the first prominent politicians to recommend extensive hand-washing and mask-wearing (as early as February) and urged voluntary social distancing and business closures at a time (late March) when the central government was still resisting such measures, she was also criticized for calling late night press conferences and other unnecessary social gatherings of an official sort. Among the creative works parodying this ambivalence was cartoonist Takuzo’s one-page spoof (April 11 @TakuzouToitoi) of the dramatic hand gestures the governor used to urge the press corps to maintain their distance. After slicing her hand through the air like in an action manga, the masked lady declares “Mitsu!” (“Too close!”), a buzzword that Koike had taken to saying following the aforementioned government proclamation to avoid the “three Cs.” Reporters look on astonished at her social-distance-creating powers.

Koike has featured centrally in what we might call COVIDeo games: simple, privately made video games about the virus. In one KYS's Avoid! The Three Cs (posted April 14, @dfnbft), designed in the style of a first generation first-person shooter, a player wearing a facemask has to dodge panels of Koike’s head as they hurtle down a narrow hall, while “social distance” is repeated over and over again in English in Koike’s voice. The game is over once you crash into Koike three times, thereby breaking the government’s advice against respecting the “three Cs.”  As reported on Reuters on April 20, another Koike-related game by one Gunjo Chikin was blocked by Twitter, though you can play it on the site Gaming Chahan. Titled simply Social Distance: The Game (Mitsu desu), a female character in a bright green suit moves along a scrolling grey field, a bright halo on the ground around her. Groups of people in masks stand in her way. By tapping the screen, a speech balloon saying “mitsu desu” (“too close”) manifests and forces the people aside. One must say it often enough so that the masses don’t cross your social distancing circle. Your personal energy bar is represented by five face masks, and is depleted every time someone gets too close. At the end of each level, Abe appears holding two face masks, but not wearing one himself . . . What should you do? The natural response is to push him aside—that was my initial response, anyway—but it turns out that, if you let him cross your social space, he replenishes your energy by, of course, two masks, just like in the government’s Abenomask packets. Apparently, it is not in your interest to fight the Prime Minister, at least if you’re the governor of Tokyo.

KYS, Avoid! The Three Cs (April 14); Gunjo Chikin, Social Distance: The Game (mid April).

Far more advanced is You’re Too Close 3D: Disperse the Crowds! by one Sakashita Mōse (posted April 21 @motulo), a PhD student at Cornell University. It stars a suited female character, equipped with Koike’s “mitsu desu” reprimand and distancing gesture. Now she is able to run like a champ and fly over buildings to locate and disperse crowds conversing, dancing, and jogging in the streets, though in a city that looks like New York not Tokyo. If nothing else, it is simply amazing that there are three video games on this same, hyper topical theme. Sakashita has also created animated LINE stickers from the game, so that you can continue virtually enforcing social distance while being virtually connected.

Sakashita Mōse, You're Too Close 3D: Disperse the Crowds! (April 21).

(continued in part 2...)