Naoya Shiga depicts the human mind during a pandemic

Although COVID-19 became a global pandemic, this is not the first time an infectious disease has spread throughout Japanese society. Since the Meiji era alone, there have been several highly feared infectious diseases.

Tuberculosis was incurable until the postwar period in the 1950s, when streptomycin, a specific cure for the disease, became widely available. It was after the 1960s that the number of dysentery patients declined sharply, thanks to improved sanitation and the development of antibiotics. There was also the Spanish flu pandemic of several years from 1918.

At a time when there was no treatment, these were feared as infectious diseases with a high mortality rate.

Many literary works have depicted how people reacted or how they felt when they contracted such an infectious disease or when someone close to them contracted one.

For example, there is a novel by Naoya Shiga titled Ryuko Kanbo (Influenza), which was published in 1919.

At the time, there was the Spanish flu pandemic, and the main character in this novel is a man who takes care not to go to places where many people gather. The situation is exactly the same as the corona virus pandemic of today.

However, when he learns that the maid of the house has secretly gone to a theatrical performance in town, he gets angry and tries to fire her, but his wife intervenes.

Later, the whole family is infected by a craftsman who visits the house, and they all suffer from a high fever. Only the maid is not infected, and because she takes care of everyone, the family is saved. The protagonist then reflects on his distrust of the maid.

This novel is a personal novel, which Naoya Shiga himself said, “I wrote the facts as they are.”

In other words, even a literary scholar with an eye for objective observation of things can feel the stress of living under an invisible virus and become suspicious, selfish, criticize others and prone to forgetting to respect others, as he describes in a frank and self-critical manner.

On the other hand, what about us during the COVID-19 pandemic? We may be suspicious and attack others with little awareness, or we may take it for granted when we see others behaving in such a way.

In fact, there have been widespread incidents such as the “social distancing police” and attacks on cars with license plates from other prefectures.

However, this may be a different aspect of oneself or one’s character from what one would normally see. Literary works can be an opportunity to reflect on such things.

Takuboku Ishikawa depicts people who seek God and ask for the epidemic to be driven away

In his novel Sekiri (Dysentery) published in 1909, Takuboku depicts people in a deserted village turning to religion.

At that time, there was no established treatment for dysentery, and in a deserted village where there were no doctors nearby, people turned to God. A new religion took advantage of this situation and propagated.

It is portrayed as very shady, with people offering wine and praying, and the missionaries themselves seem to be aware of the dubious nature of the religion. Still, the people have no choice but to cling to God.

However, in the end, there is no effect at all, and the missionaries are severely insulted and their missions fail.

The idea that offering wine and praying to God would dispel a plague is baseless and seems absurd from the outside.

However, even in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, if one searches the Internet for the words “warding off epidemic” or “religion,” one will find many websites of religious organizations. What kind of practices are being done to ward off the epidemic there? Still, is there no end to the number of people who try to rely on them?

In other words, I would say that it is a universality in the human mind to turn to God in response to the anxiety and fear of diseases for which the causes and treatments are not well understood.

Tadao Umesao, an ethnologist and professor emeritus at the National Museum of Ethnology, wrote in his book An Ecological View of History that there are considerable similarities between the phenomenon of religion and that of epidemic disease.

However, unlike the deserted villages of the Meiji era, today, hospitals are located in every corner of the country, and even at the stage when the treatment for the COVID-19 was not yet known, at least scientific information on the mechanism of infection and how to prevent it was repeatedly transmitted and accessible.

Even though deep down in our hearts we may have a desire to pray to God against a disease that we do not understand, today we are able to make decisions based on scientific information.

Takuboku Ishikawa’s Sekiri encourages us to reflect on ourselves to see if we are making such judgments properly.

In addition, although incurable diseases are disappearing with the development of medical care, there are still anxieties and suppressions that are different from death, as depicted in Kekkaku Byoto Monogatari (Tuberculosis Ward Story) by Ayako Saito, published in 1987.

The main character of the novel, a female student, contracts pulmonary tuberculosis, but at that time, tuberculosis was no longer an incurable disease. After several months of hospitalization and treatment, the protagonist recovers.

However, the protagonist’s fear of returning to society and her desire not to lose the comfort of sleeping and doing nothing for the sake of recuperation grows.

People do not want to get sick, but if there is no fear of death and hospitalization is more comfortable than expected, they may feel lazy.

On the other hand, there is a feeling of bashing those who are ill, whether they know it or not, among those who are healthy and working.

Especially today, the term “self-responsibility” tends to inflate a sense of discrimination, judging those who have contracted a disease as people who cannot take care of their health. For patients, this leads to the suppression that they may not be accepted by society.

When we come into contact with works that expose this structure, we are reminded that society itself is sick, or that society is composed of such people.

Roka Tokutomi, who romanticized tuberculosis

Japanese literature on the theme of tuberculosis has several characteristics.

The first is that, although there is actually no benefit to be gained from contracting tuberculosis, a disease with a high mortality rate, a positive image is found in the disease. This is romanticization.

As tuberculosis patients often sleep in their room and their faces become pale and emaciated, the image of them as beautiful women was created in literary works. This image of women made tuberculosis seem like a romanticized disease by depicting the tragedy of death in a sad way.

Typical of this romanticization is Roka Tokutomi’s Hototogisu (Little Cuckoo), which appeared in newspapers from 1898 to the following year. The story is about a woman named Namiko who contracts tuberculosis at a young age, as a result, is forced to separate from her husband, and dies.

In those days, if one member of a family contracted tuberculosis, the whole family would be infected and the family might die out. In those days, when the family was important, if it was the daughter in-law, one option was for her to leave the family and return to her parent’s home.

However, the husband in Hototogisu did not dislike Namiko, but was forced to leave her at the behest of his mother. Because the story depicts the love between a couple torn apart, and Namiko, who had contracted tuberculosis, was depicted as a beautiful woman, the tragedy of the story struck at the heart of people, and Hototogisu became a big hit.

Roka Tokutomi himself did not have tuberculosis. In fact, romanticizations of tuberculosis are often made by literary figures who do not have the disease.

On the other hand, many literary figures have died of tuberculosis, including Shimei Futabatei, Shiki Masaoka, Ichiyo Higuchi, Doppo Kunikida, Takuboku Ishikawa, and Kenji Miyazawa.

They left works on the theme of tuberculosis as well, but none of them can be said to have been romanticized. Rather, there are detailed descriptions of sputum, a filth that is far from romantic.

At that time, blood in sputum due to hemoptysis was a factor in the diagnosis of tuberculosis, so for literary figures who actually contracted tuberculosis, their own sputum was of great interest and may have been an object of observation.

The second characteristic is that literary figures who died prematurely owing to tuberculosis left behind outstanding works during their short lives, creating the image of tuberculosis as a genius phenomenon that endowed them with talent. Here, too, a positive image is formed despite the dreadful disease of tuberculosis.

In Japan, a country with a backward history of tuberculosis, the mortality rate from tuberculosis is much higher among people in their 20s than in Europe and the United States, where the rate is higher among the elderly.

In other words, young literary figures who contracted tuberculosis also faced the desperate tragedy of death at a time when their talents were blossoming. The introspection that deepened there may have been a factor in leaving behind works that are considered to have been those of a genius.

Now that we have experienced the pandemic caused by the COVID-19, we may be able to reflect on a variety of issues when we come into contact with literary works on the theme of infectious diseases, such as the movement of our own minds under abnormal conditions, facing death, and the nature of society as a safety net.

* The information contained herein is current as of March 2023.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.