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735–737 Japanese smallpox epidemic

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The 735–737 Japanese smallpox epidemic was a major smallpox epidemic that afflicted much of Japan and had a lasting historic impact. Overall adult mortality from the disease has been estimated to be at least 25-35% of Japan's population, with some regions suffering much higher losses. The disease first took hold on Japan's southwestern island of Kyushu and eventually spread to the east to central Honshu, including Japan's capital at Nara. All classes of society were affected, and there was significant social, economic, and religious repercussions at the national level.

Origins[edit]

A few decades prior to the outbreak, around the turn of the eighth century, Japanese court officials had adopted the Chinese policy of reporting disease outbreaks among the general population.[1] This recording practice greatly facilitated the identification of smallpox as the disease that afflicted Japan during the years 735-737.

Increased contact between Japan and the Asian mainland had led to more frequent and serious outbreaks of infectious diseases, and the smallpox epidemic of 735-737 was no exception. The disease was recorded as having taken hold around 735's month of August[2] in the city of Dazaifu, Fukuoka in northern Kyushu, brought there ostensibly by a Japanese fisherman who had contracted the illness after being stranded on the Korean peninsula.[3] The disease spread rapidly throughout northern Kyushu that year, and persisted into the next. By 736, many land tenants in Kyushu were either dying or forsaking their crops, leading to poor agricultural yields and ultimately famine.[4][5]

Also in 736, Japanese officials on their way to conduct a foreign mission on the Korean peninsula passed through the midst of the epidemic in northern Kyushu and became sickened. They never reached their destination. Surviving members of the party returned to the capital, carrying the disease with them to eastern Japan and Nara.[6] The disease continued to ravage Japan in 737. One manifestation of the pandemic's great impact was that by August of 737, a tax exemption had been extended to all of Japan.[7]

Based on fiscal reports, adult mortality for the smallpox epidemic of 735-737 has been estimated at 25%-35% of Japan's entire population, with some areas experiencing much higher rates.[8] All levels of society were affected. Many court nobles perished due to smallpox in 737, including all four brothers of the politically powerful Fujiwara clan: Fujiwara no Muchimaro (680-737), Fujiwara no Fusasaki (681-737), Fujiwara no Umakai (694-737), and Fujiwara no Maro (695-737). Their sudden departure from the royal court allowed for the ascension of noted rival Tachibana no Moroe to a high official position in the court of Emperor Shōmu.[7]

The extensive scope of the disease triggered significant population migration, exacerbating the shortage of laborers in a number of regions. This affected construction and farming, especially rice cultivation.[9]

Aftermath[edit]

The Daibutsuden at Tōdai-ji

In addition to the granting of tax waivers, Japan's nobles took other unprecedented actions in response to the effects of the epidemic to help stem widespread population migration and to reinvigorate the farming communities. For example, several years after the smallpox epidemic had run its course, the Japanese leaders attempted to stimulate agricultural productivity by offering private land ownership to those willing to work farmland.[10]

Also around this time Emperor Shōmu, who felt personally responsible for the tragedy, greatly increased the official support of Buddhism by commissioning the construction of the grand temple Tōdai-ji and its Daibutsu, and provided significant financial support for the construction of other provincial temples (the kokubunji (国分寺)), statues, and related religious structures throughout the country.[3][11] The cost to cast the Daibutsu alone has been said to have nearly bankrupted the country.[12]

Over the next several centuries, Japan continued to experience smallpox epidemics. But by the early part of the 2nd millennium, smallpox had become endemic to the Japanese population and thus less devastating during outbreaks.[13]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Farris, William Wayne (1985). Population, Disease, and Land in Early Japan, 645-900. Harvard University Asia Center. pp. 51–52. ISBN 9780674690059.
  2. ^ Jannetta, Ann Bowman (2014). Epidemics and Mortality in Early Modern Japan. Princeton University Press. p. 66. ISBN 9780691609935.
  3. ^ a b Hopkins, Donald R. (2002). The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History. University of Chicago Press. p. 107. ISBN 9780226351681.
  4. ^ Farris, William Wayne (1985). Population, Disease, and Land in Early Japan, 645-900. Harvard University Asia Center. p. 56. ISBN 9780674690059.
  5. ^ Jannetta, Ann Bowman (2014). Epidemics and Mortality in Early Modern Japan. Princeton University Press. p. 67. ISBN 9780691609935.
  6. ^ Farris, William Wayne (1985). Population, Disease, and Land in Early Japan, 645-900. Harvard University Asia Center. p. 57. ISBN 9780674690059.
  7. ^ a b Farris, William Wayne (1985). Population, Disease, and Land in Early Japan, 645-900. Harvard University Asia Center. p. 59. ISBN 9780674690059.
  8. ^ Farris, William Wayne (1985). Population, Disease, and Land in Early Japan, 645-900. Harvard University Asia Center. pp. 65–66. ISBN 9780674690059.
  9. ^ "Diseases of the Premodern Period in Japan". Retrieved 2018-11-10.
  10. ^ Farris, William Wayne (1985). Population, Disease, and Land in Early Japan, 645-900. Harvard University Asia Center. p. 69. ISBN 9780674690059.
  11. ^ Farris, William Wayne (1985). Population, Disease, and Land in Early Japan, 645-900. Harvard University Asia Center. p. 68. ISBN 9780674690059.
  12. ^ Bamforth, Chris (May 26, 2006), "The capital delights of Nara", The Japan Times
  13. ^ Jannetta, Ann Bowman (2014). Epidemics and Mortality in Early Modern Japan. Princeton University Press. pp. 68–69. ISBN 9780691609935.