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Spanish flu pandemic 100 years ago helped wipe one Japanese village off the map

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It may seem surprising, but for centuries Japan was one of the world's largest producers of copper. Its largest and best known mine was the notorious Ashio copper mine in Tochigi Prefecture. Operated by the Furukawa consortium, the pollutants from its smelter in the late 19th century caused untold suffering to farmers and other residents living along the Watarase River. The mine was closed in 1973. 

But Japan had other copper mines, some of them said to have dated back nearly a millennia. One, located in Fukui Prefecture close to its border with Gifu, was called the Omodani mine. 

Writing in an extra edition of Shukan Jitsuwa dated Dec 23, Takaaki Yagisawa reports on how the eponymous village of Omodani, a boom town thanks to high demand for copper in World War I, was nearly wiped out by the influenza pandemic that arrived in Japan in the autumn of 1918. The pandemic ended, but the village never recovered, and today only a few stone markers remain as evidence of its existence. 

Nestled in a valley between hills from which the copper was mined, Omodani, at its peak in 1914, had 3,000 residents. It boasted a post office, library, kimono shop, clock repair shop and a small community theater. 

Due in part to censorship by the military, news of the outbreak of the Spanish flu was initially restricted, and the pandemic rapidly spread from soldiers to civilians, and from the belligerent nations to neutral countries. It eventually reached Japan and by October 1918, cases were first reported even in the relatively isolated mining village of Omodani. 

The village population had already declined by about 1,000 from its 1914 peak, but was still economically viable as the end of 1918 approached.

According to archival materials, the residents were summoned to the community hall, where the village doctor cautioned them about the spread of a "virulent type of influenza." His warnings proved futile: Some 900 were to contract the flu, of whom at least 90 died. So rapidly did people expire that at one point the village crematory, with maximum capacity of 10 corpses per day, could not keep up, and bodies had to be stored temporarily in a shed. 

By 1919 the Japanese economy was hit hard by  recession and demand for copper ore plummeted. The combined one-two punch of disease and economic decline led to the village's abandonment. 

Today little is left what was formerly Omodani village: at the end of an unpaved road can be seen a flat area with knee-high weeds. The moss-covered stone steps and a stone marker indicate where a Shinto shrine once stood, and stone markers for the crematory and cemetery also remain. 

"An attempt was made to re-open the mine, and it appears a few people made their way back to the village," Yagisawa writes. "But it was never to recover its former prosperity and became a haison (abandoned village). 

In the half-sunken remains of what was probably the foundation of a house, Yagisawa found a beer bottle. 

"It read 'Kirin' in katakana, from right to left, the way it was written in prewar times," he writes. "In my mind's eye I could imagine how a mine worker here would relax after a hard day in the mines.

"In a way the bottle gave me a sense of relief,  reminding me this was once a place where people lived their lives." 

Some color photos of what remains of Omodani village can be viewed at this site: http://orange.zero.jp/zbc54213.wing/omodani-.html

© Japan Today

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

14 Comments
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Due in part to censorship by the military, news of the outbreak of the Spanish flu was initially restricted,

history repeats itself

15 ( +18 / -3 )

The current pandemic has a very high cost both in lives and resources, and people are justified on thinking that much more could be done; but stories like this are useful to remind us that even with what appears huge incompetent moves from the government in many countries things could have been much much worse.

-6 ( +7 / -13 )

According to archival materials, the residents were summoned to the community hall, where the village doctor cautioned them about the spread of a "virulent type of influenza." His warnings proved futile: Some 900 were to contract the flu, of whom at least 90 died.

Doh!

12 ( +14 / -2 )

This headline makes zero sense. The village population had already declined from 4000 to 3000 in just 4 years. Then, on the 5th year, they lost 90 people to the Spanish flu. And then, the year after that, the demand for copper from the village mines plummeted.

And yet, the Spanish flu "wiped out" the village? This is the type of fear mongering "news" people are fed daily.

-13 ( +6 / -19 )

This is the type of fear mongering "news" people are fed daily.

This is an interesting and poignant article about the decline and disappearance of a small community in a remote area of Japan. It is not a propaganda piece, and the idea that it constitutes "fear-mongering" is laughable. Read it as a piece of history and give the linked (and very atmospheric) photographs a look, and don't attempt to spoil it for yourself and others by applying to it the filters of your own present-day imaginings and resentments.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Read it as a piece of history and give the linked (and very atmospheric) photographs a look, and don't attempt to spoil it for yourself and others by applying to it the filters of your own present-day imaginings and resentments.

I must be imagining the headline:

"Spanish flu pandemic 100 years ago wiped one Japanese village off the map"

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Interesting story. Its true that it was more likely the economic collapse rather than the pandemic itself that wiped out the village, but it still must have been horrible.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I must be imagining the headline:

This is the type of fear mongering "news" people are fed daily

I'm not imagining your conclusion.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Due in part to censorship by the military, news of the outbreak of the Spanish flu was initially restricted

Not the full story. Spain was neutral during WW1, and had no domestic horses to frighten by mentioning the epidemic crossing its borders. Spanish flu is a misnomer, as it began in the US.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

The Spanish Flu did not begin in Spain, but all the evidence is that it did not begin in the Americas, either. The first cases in The States were not reported until after ships carrying infected passengers came to American ports, well after cases had been reported in Europe.

Most diseases which begin in other animals and then migrate to humans begin in Africa or Asia.

If I may repeat myself, I grew up listening to my Mother's stories of living in New York City during the pandemic of 1918-1920. She told me repeatedly about the horrible things she witnessed, such as families losing all their children overnight, or of people having to wrap the dead in sheets and then leave them on the side of the streets for public services to pick up and put in mass graves. I, too, was horrified, but I felt some consolation in thinking that at least we would not have to go through such a thing again, in my lifetime. Wow, was I wrong.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

First job out of school at 16 was in a Tin Smelter, those type of places are hell on earth.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

dated back nearly a millennia.

A millennium. Two millennia, one millennium.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The photos are indeed poignant and left me quietly contemplating. Interesting article.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This puts our current ‘pandemic’ into perspective.

The Spanish Flu claimed between 20 - 50 million lives, while COVID numbers have yet to reach one million.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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