Technicolor “Supein Kaze”: A Bright Eye on Japan and its Spanish Flu Safety Posters

by Laetitia Barbier, Morbid Anatomy Programming Director 

Hello from my side of the quarantine, in which the internet and good books are allowing me to find solace. With the absence of social life, I have spent some time these last few days looking through historical images on the internet. This cathartic rabbit hole allowed me to find these images from Japan, which bring back a bit of beauty in these time of fear and social distancing. 

In 1918, as the world struggled to extract itself from the tail end of a global conflict, the quickly spreading influenza epidemic crushed the nations, inflating an already large number of war casualties and decimating over twenty million people. As I was doing some reading about these calamitous events, I stumbled upon The Influenza Pandemic in Japan, 1918-1920: The First World War Between Humankind and a Virus, an incredible book written by Hayaka Akira and from which the following safety measures were drawn.  

Indeed, Japan lost half of its population during the Spanish flu pandemic, or Supein Kaze in Japanese. These various posters came without captions, so I wrote my own speculative ones, inspired by what I understand from the illustrations. 

"Avoid keeping the living windows open, and call a health professional if you detect any sign of fever", from The Influenza Pandemic in Japan, 1918-1920: The First World War between Humankind and a Virus, an incredible book written by Hayaka Akira, 2015.

"Wear a mask if you take public transportation to avoid contamination," from The Influenza Pandemic in Japan, 1918-1920: The First World War between Humankind and a Virus, an incredible book written by Hayaka Akira, 2015.

"Protect your mouth with your elbow if you cough, to avoid the virus from traveling," from The Influenza Pandemic in Japan, 1918-1920: The First World War between Humankind and a Virus, an incredible book written by Hayaka Akira, 2015.

"Gargle with antiseptic medication," from The Influenza Pandemic in Japan, 1918-1920: The First World War between Humankind and a Virus, an incredible book written by Hayaka Akira, 2015.


"Vaccine chases the Virus away," from The Influenza Pandemic in Japan, 1918-1920: The First World War between Humankind and a Virus, an incredible book written by Hayaka Akira, 2015.

"Protect the most vulnerable ones as you keep protective precautions for yourself," from The Influenza Pandemic in Japan, 1918-1920: The First World War between Humankind and a Virus, an incredible book written by Hayaka Akira, 2015.

"Stay home if you are sick so you don't contaminate others," from The Influenza Pandemic in Japan, 1918-1920: The First World War between Humankind and a Virus, an incredible book written by Hayaka Akira, 2015.

"Sun rays and Vaccines will help get rid of the Virus," from The Influenza Pandemic in Japan, 1918-1920: The First World War between Humankind and a Virus, an incredible book written by Hayaka Akira, 2015.

There is a lot to say about these gorgeous posters, whose vivid colors and incredibly inventive design almost distract us from the fact that some of these health procedures are very similar to the one we have to follow in these dark times. Yet, they also carry the Japanese genius of composition and the kind eye of an illustrator who depicts the dignity of everyday life during an epidemic, with simple gestures becoming everyday rituals. I also love the comic relief of seeing the virus anthropomorphized and depicted as some farcical demon, fanning germs on future victims, carrying his nasty luggage around, and running cowardly away once a vaccine is administrated. 

What I really love is this: In Japanese Art, one of the many stylistic conventions is the creation of dynamic and visual stimulation via the juxtaposition of patterns. In these images, ostensibly mere educational posters, the artist made sure to exploit this idea, drawing from centuries of woodblock printing tradition. In these images, it is translated in the variety of fabrics - garments, kimonos or blankets covering a sick bodies - with their colorful geometry often clashing with each other. Clearly, the person who designed these images knew that if he could inspire a sentiment of beauty with a bit of humor, these safety rules would go a long way. A reminder that looking for beauty can help us deter some of the fear we have in these complicated times.   

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French born Laetitia Barbier is an independent scholar, as well as professional tarot reader and teacher. She earned a Bachelor Degree in Art History from La Sorbonne University Paris. Laetitia has worked with Morbid Anatomy since 2010 as a programing director and Head Librarian. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. 




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