Vegder's Blog

May 15, 2009

Kaya 蚊屋 Mosquito Netting

Mosquito netting.

A beautiful night.

A beautiful night by Kiyochika (清親: 1847-1915)

Ka ( 蚊 or か) is mosquito. Kaya (蚊屋 or かや) is mosquito netting. It can also be – and more often is – 蚊帳. Mosquitoes came first and civilization followed with its masses just waiting those little annoying pests. And feed we did. Researching this entry I ran across one source which said that the Japanese had figured out – mainly through the use of the kaya – how to eliminate malaria. However, I am not so sure about that. Malaria is spread by the Anopheles mosquito while the predominant mosquito in Japan was/is the Culex pipiens. Not that the C. pipiens doesn’t carry its own nasty pathogens – it seems that it may be responsible for West Nile virus and St. Louis encepahlitis and other horrific ailments – but as for malaria it only gives it to birds and not humans. Either way, man has shown great  adaptability through commonsense practices. Nuissances led the development of the kaya and better health followed. Better health and a good night’s sleep – what more could one ask?

So without further ado we give you the Culex pipiens which the Japanese have fought so long and so well to keep at bay.
The enemy as presented by David Barrillet-Portal.
The enemy as presented by David Barrillet-Portal.

However, long before we had netting we had smoke and it doesn’t take rocket science to know that mosquitoes don’t like smoke. This may be one of those culture traits which popped up independently everywhere. The Chinese used it from time immemorial. Eventually they developed special incense sticks which were far better suited for domestic living than large open fires. These sticks or coils were also laden with spiritual and ritualistic significance. Moxa was also burned to keep mosquitoes away.  Joseph Needham tells us that the first mention of mosquito-repellant incensce was in the 13th century. Surely this invention existed before that. (Mosquito-repelling incense coils are referenced in the 11th century Tale of Genji. Mosquito incense is also mentioned in the early 14th century Tsurezuregusa or Essays in Idleness by the Buddhist priest Kenkō.)  In Chinese it was called wēn yēn (蚊烟) – I read the second character as yān – and it translates as ‘mosquito smoke’. Later Needham adds that the first mention of mosquito netting in China was a reference made by a botanist in the 18th century. But remember that is simply the earliest reference he could find. Such an item may have been around for hundreds of years before that especially considering that the Japanese had long used such netting to protect themselves.

This brings up several fascinating bits of superfluous information:The Egyptians created absolutely remarkable close-weave linens more than 3,000 years ago. The Romans  reclined on a bed or couch under such netting. This was a conopeum. From conopeum we get the word canopy. But it gets much more interesting than that. In Greece it was a referred to as a khonopeion from the word khōnōps which meant gnat or mosquito. Shipley tells that that is the origin of the word ‘canapé . Ancient Romans and Greeks would often dine on their couches reclining under the protection of draped mosquito netting. Hence, a canapé is a small bite taken by man similiar to the small bite taken by the khōnōps or mosquito out of that same man.

Different Japanese artists created several series of prints based on the Chinese model of the ’24 Paragons of Filial Piety.’ Kuniyoshi (国芳: 1797-1861) was the best known for this, but others used this theme too. The first example shown below is a detail from a print by are by Chikanobu (周延: 1838-1912). The second one is from a Kuniyoshi.


There is even a Japanese term (for the device used to produce) outdoor smoke: 蚊遣り.


Late in the 19th c., 1888 to be more exact, Yoshitoshi (芳年: 1838-92) produced a series of woodblock prints of great beauties – each with its own particular scheme. One of them shows an elegant woman, dressed in a thin, blue and white summer robe, holding a fan and dodging the smoke meant to drive away those infernal blood suckers out for their evening meal.


Mosquitoes are mentioned (somewhat obliquely) in the Kojiki (古事記: 712) , Japan’s oldest written record. There is an incidental mention of mosquito dispelling incense in the “Tale of Genji”, but here the smoke is a not very veiled reference to sexual desires. Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book describes a minister whose hearing is so keen that she says “I believe he could hear the sound of a mosquito’s eyelash falling on the floor.” And there are numerous other early literary references to mosquitoes.

The first mosquito nets were used exclusively by the aristocary. However, like most things, in time its use became more generalized and spread down the social ladder until it reached the middle and to some degree the lower classes. Basil Hall Chamberlain in his Things Japanese, originally published in 1890, wrote that there was still an even poorer underclass which was forced to use green wood because it produced the most smoke. He testified that he had had to endure this practice and that it was most disagreeable. When he was writing little was known about the history of the kaya in Japan – at least among Westerners. Chamberlain assumed that it had first been imported by the Portuguese in the 16th c. Many things were, but not netting.

By the 15th c. a cottage industry had developed at Nara where the netting was made from raw silk. By the 17th c. much of the production of netting was centered in Oomi in Shiga prefecture where it was made on a mass scale. Linen was imported from Echizen and then dyed and woven. Originally this was placed over a bamboo structure. Like all great industries it evolved with technological advances. However, the horogaya ( 母衣蚊帳 or  ほろがや), a small bamboo frame with netting, was still used to shelter small children and babies as can be seen by the Kunisada illustration shown below.


In time the bamboo frame was replaced with a system of rings and hooks. “The fabric was a rough broadcloth weave of green linen threads, which was then pieced together into a rectangular ‘tent’ of four walls, a ceiling, and no floor, bordered in red at the seams. The ceiling sheet would have loops at the four corners for suspension in nail in the structural posts.” They were designed to fit the rooms.

Two of the great joys of the Internet are 1) expanding one’s knowledge in any particular field and 2) putting people together who are willing to share their specialties. That is what has happened here. Right after I published this post I noticed that there was a spike in the number of visitors. Since I can check my statistics on an almost minute by minute basis I saw that someone had added a link accompanied by some complimentary thoughts. Being human, or semi- so, I was flattered and recently e-mailed the source, Stephen Szczepanek, who can be found at to ask his permission to add two kaya images from his site. He graciously said ‘okay’.  (See below) Not only is his an interesting and attractive site, but it is filled with a lot of infomation – which I, of course, find extremely useful. You should take a look. (Normally I don’t add links to commercial enterprises, but I am making this one an exception. Besides, he flattered me and I am currently in the push-over mode.)

At almost the same time I was writing about mosquito netting SRI Threads was offering a kaya from the 19th century. Below is a detail of the ring attachment followed by a photo of the whole item. I don’t recall what the description said, but surely the ring is not original, but the rest is – and that is what matters.



“Silk nets [during the Edo period?] were luxury items, dyed light blue and having white borders along the seams. Cotton kaya were the poor person’s article, generally afforded by farmers and hired help. Paper kaya were glued together our to of large sheets of Japanese paper (washi). They were commonly used by the poor, not only for mosquito netting, but as insulation to trap heat during the winter. Paper nets found another, more specialized, use in lacquer studios providing a dust-free working environment.” (Koizumi in Traditional Japanese Furniture)

Below are two details from two different prints. The first is from an Utamaro showing a courtesan raising a kaya. She is securing the ring to to the hook in the corner of the room. The second one is from an Eisen triptych and shows a different courtesan from a different house taking the kaya down.



There have been many beautiful and remarkable images in Japanese printmaking which have included mosquito netting. Since the late Edo period often emphasized the lives of the women who worked in the brothels the inclusion of a kaya in a summer setting makes perferct sense. The one shown immediately below is a detail from a print by Kunisada where a beauty is trying to burn a mosquito which has gotten inside. Clearly a risky thing to do.


Of course, the purpose of a brothel and the women who worked there came down to one thing – entertainment.


Later artists like Yoshitoshi toward the end of the 19th c. and Kotondo in the early 20th gave us masterpieces which included the kaya. In the first one below – the Yoshitoshi – we see a woman emerging from her mosquito netting after a hot night. The next one, the Kotondo, is from the early 1930s refers to ‘morning hair’ or asanegami (朝寝髪 or あさねがみ) an ancient term used in many early poems.



One of the great things about Japanese culture is there always seems to be a myth or superstition linked to just about everything. Such is the case with kaya. Lafcadio Hearn tells us that “When a thunderstorm comes, the big brown mosquito curtains are suspended, and the women and children – perhaps the whole family squat down under the curtains till the storm is over. The Raijū, or Thunder-Animal, cannot pass through a mosquito- curtain.” (Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, p. 297) In the first image below, a print by Kunisada, a mother is rushing to hang the kaya so she can protect herself and her child. (Notice that the lightning is already striking within the house near the child’s foot.) The second example shows a woman cowering within her kaya netting, but protected from the worst even though the lightning is striking with inches of her head. The third print is by Kuniyoshi and shows that artist’s sense of the absurd. In it Shoki the Demon Queller is diving for protection within the mosquito netting while the Thunder God is totally amused. (The irony is doubled here because Shoki is often displayed as a producer of lighting and thunder himself.)



One of the charms of the Japanese woodblock print is the perpetuation of mythic beliefs. For example, the display of a lightning bolt inside a house or building as seen in the image above. Of course, such a thing can happen, but is rarely observed. When I was young I was sitting in our kitchen, eating my breakfast. Lightning struck a car – my sister’s ride to school – bounced off that car to the top of our chimney, and down through some of our electrical wiring. As I was raising my spoon to my mouth it struck, took its course, blew the plastic electrical plate at the other end of our kitchen off the wall, flying through the air, shooting right past my face – between the spoon and my mouth – and crashed into the wall to my right. Where the plate flew off the wall flames were shooting upwards. The fire department had to come to make sure it was not smoldering inside our walls.Too bad I wasn’t protected by a kaya.

Below is another print, this one from the Lyon Collection, similar to the one shown above. Notice the rush to put up the kaya, the clutching child, and the lightning bolts inside their home. Click on this image to go to the page devoted to it at the Lyon Collection.

Kunisada_kaya_lightning_Lyon_Collection_7   Lyon Collection


However, while kaya were good at keeping lightning and mosquitoes at bay it was no protection against ghosts and ghouls. Hokusai made that clear in his pièce de résistance, the Ghost of Kohada Koheiji peering into the kaya.


Utamaro, before Hokusai, made it clear that sometimes the demons came from within. In a print from ca. 1800 a mother goes to her child who is crying in his sleep. Carefully protected within a horogaya he is kept safe from mosquitoes, but not from nightmares. In the great catalogue to The Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro Timothy Clark gives us a translation of the text found in the print shown below. “The phantoms in his dream include a long-necked monster (rokuro-kubi) and a one-eyed temple page (hitotsu-me-kozō), who are saying: ‘Let’s give him some more nightmares tonight.’ ‘As long as the mother doesn’t wake him we’ll scare him some more.’ ‘Right, let’s show the mother some horrid dreams tonight as well.’ ”


Lafcadio Hearn wrote about being plagued by mosquitoes because he lived close to a Buddhist cemetery where they bred. Since these insects were considered reincarnations of people who had led dissolute lives Hearn felt it would be a real problem to try to eradicate them since all life was sacred. (This takes the right-to-life ideas to a greater extreme than even those known and practiced in the West.) To be reborn as a blood-sucking mosquito the new life form a deceased soul would be known as a jiki-ketsu-gaki (I think this is 食血餓鬼 or  じきけつがき) or blood-sucking Buddhist ghost. “Before nearly every tomb in the old cemetery there is a water-receptacle, or cistern, called ‘mizutamé [水溜 or みずため].’ In the majority of cases this mizutamé is simply an oblong cavity chiseled in the broad pedestal supporting the monument…” but more costly tombs had their own elaborately carved water containers. “In front of a tomb of the humblest class, having no mizutamé, water is placed in cups or other vessels – for the dead must have water.”

The image below is shown courtesy of the late Michael Thaler.


Hearn continued: “Flowers also must be offered to them; and before every tomb you find a pair of bamboo cups, or other flower vessels; and these, of course, contain water. There is a well in the cemetery to provide water for the graves. Whenever the tombs are visited by relatives and friends of the dead, fresh water is poured into the tanks and cups. But as an old cemetery of this kind contains thousands of mizutamé, and tens of thousands of flower-vessels, the water in all these cannot be renewed every day. It becomes stagnant and populous [with mosquito larvae].

Hearn knows that one solution would be to spray the water surfaces with kerosene, but this raises certain religious issues. Spraying would prevent the mosquito infestation, but it would also prevent the reincarnation of wicked souls which is all part of the grand Buddhist scheme. And, since, Hearn would like to have a Buddhist burial it might keep him from coming back as a jiki-ketsu-gaki, the only form left to him. (Below is a detail of flowers in a planter before a cemetery. It was taken by Kansai explorer and posted at


From the cultural kitchen sink: A Tlingit myth

According to the Tlingit (トリンギット), as recounted in American Indian Myths and Legends edited by Erdoes and Ortiz, there was a gigantic monster who fed on human flesh and blood and was especially fond of eating the heart. One clever member of the Tlingit nation figured out how to trick the monster and was able to slay him. Yet, despite the fact that he was dead, the giant still spoke to the man saying he would never quit his ways and would always suck the blood of humans. With that the man cut up the giant’s body into small pieces and burned them thoroughly. When he had finished he threw the ashes into the air, but miraculously they transformed themselves into the first mosquitoes and have been plaguing mankind ever since. (This part and the next three images below were added on April 28, 2011.)

Below is a Tlingit Mosquito mask shown courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It dates from before 1843.

Strangely enough this is not far removed from the story of the Monkey King who pulled out his own hair and threw it into the air. Each air became a fierce miniature warrior increasing the strength of the monkeys army. I am not saying that these two stories are connected, but it is an interesting comparison – for me, at least. And, for those of you who do not know what I am talking about, here is a image created by Yoshitoshi showing the Monkey King performing his miraculous act.

And an Egyptian amulet – The Met also has an ancient Egyptian mosquito diety amulet dating from as early as the 8th century B.C.

And a sketch by Whistler – Another wonderful little item in the Met’s collection is a drawing from a sketchbook by one of my favorite 19th century American artists. I am assuming, but I would think it is from his youth and may well be a self-portrait of him drawing while under the protection of mosquito netting. One can almost hear the buzzing of those damned bugs. The quick strokes increase that sense of the auditory.

And El Mosquito Americano, a socio-political broadsheet by José Guadalupe Posada (ホセ・グアダルーペ・ポサダ: 1851-1913) in which those pesky American tourists are portrayed as mosquitoes harassing decent Mexican citizens. The text does note that with the Americans come their dollars, but still… Remember the quote attributed to Porfirio Diaz (ポルフィリオ・ディアス: 1830-1915)? “Poor Mexico, so far from God but so near the Untied States.”

  ©The Art Institute of Chicago

Before we leave this topic I have to tell you what a blast it is doing research on all subjects. The most unusual things come up. For instance, did you know that the Russian and Ukranian words for mosquito are ‘komar’? And did you know that Komarno, Manitoba has the world’s largest sculpture of a mosquito with a 15′ wing span. Not only that, but it doubles as a weather vane. That is why we are including it here courtesy of Gerry Fox. It was just too good to pass up.


For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at


  1. I found everything about the mosquito and netting and coils very interesting since I live in an area where they are very prevalent – South Texas. We have a Mosquito Control System in our yard.

    Comment by Marilynn Bloom — June 25, 2009 @ 6:49 pm | Reply

  2. Wow! This information is fabulous, especially for me incorporating the links between textiles, art, mythology and everyday life in Japan. Just came across you whilst researching woven Japenese textile for a cultural unit in High School. Keep up the good work. Regards

    Comment by Helen Engle — August 27, 2010 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

  3. What a wonderful historical snack! I’ve never seen or read this before…and found this link while researching the use of linen fiber in making kimonos, my personal area of interest.
    I truly enjoyed the edifying link between mosquitos & aspects of Japanese culture. You have clearly °scratched° into an area of research seldom offered to a thirsty public. Kudos for offering a thesis-worthy tidbit of veritable anthropological merit.
    It has been my perturbance to be a lifelong *mosquito magnet* and I sympathize with, and have ardent compassion for, such valiant efforts to keep those persistently annoying blood suckers at bay.
    Look at it this way: without them, inspired crucial inventions for the comfort & health of humankind would have had no real urgency.
    Inasmuch as beauty cannot be fully appreciated without ugliness, or joy without grief….life just would not be fully appreciated without the deep, peaceful, smiling satisfaction one feels when murderously outsmarting these foul little winged whining bloody buggers from hell…[with insincere apologies to the n’er-do-well Buddhist community, presumed to gather around the (stagnating) watering holes of the dead… loving offerings from the faithful masochists?]
    Frankly, I’d think twice before leading a dissolute life and risk being ignominously slapped into next week….
    Just saying.
    By the way, the old Indian name for my hometown is “Muskeeta Cove”.
    God has a sense of humor, if one can call it that, making such a banal assumption of a profound Intelligence far beyond any scope known…and this Intelligence made these blasted mosquitos…
    …to Provoke us.

    Comment by Lynda Hagen — April 22, 2016 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  4. […] Article: A Culture Invested in Indigo, From Plant to KimonoWikipedia Indigo DyeWikipedia KatazomeMore About Japanese Kaya Mosquito NettingMingeikan, Japanese Folk Crafts MuseumJeff Krauss’ Fabulous Kasuri CollectionKyushu […]

    Pingback by Short History Of Japanese Textiles | Discarded Cloth — January 29, 2019 @ 7:20 am | Reply

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