Japan Today



How the Spanish flu of 1918-20 ravaged Japan


In November 1918, Japan was to emerge victorious in World War I, and as part of the spoils stripped Germany of its possessions in Shandong, China and various territories in the Pacific, including the islands of Saipan and Tinian. It was a time when the country enjoyed unprecedented political freedoms during its short-lived "Taisho Democracy."

It also suffered through two waves of the Spanish flu pandemic. The first patients in Japan, reported Shukan Gendai (May 2-9), began showing symptoms around April 1918. Initially the disease was referred to as the "Sumo Kaze" (sumo cold) because a contingent of sumo wrestlers contracted it while on a tour of Taiwan. Three well known grapplers, Masagoishi, Choshunada and Wakagiyama, died before they could return from Taiwan. As the contagion spread, the summer sumo tournament, which would have been held on the grounds of Yasukuni shrine, was cancelled.

At the Yokosuka navy base, meanwhile, 150 sailors aboard the warship Shubo contracted the disease. It soon spread to the army, rapidly filling wards in the Rikugun Byoin (Army Hospital) situated in what is now Shinjuku ward. There it became known as guntai byo (the military disease).

In the first news report aimed at civilian consumption, the now-defunct Osaka Mainichi Shimbun of June 6, 1918 ran an article with the headline "Strange epidemic in Spain."

At this point in time, however, the average Japanese still saw it as news from abroad that would have little effect on their own life.

That was to change from late September when a textile factory in Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture, reported that many of its female workers were collapsing with high fevers and nosebleeds. This was the spearhead of the "first wave" of the pandemic that was to ravage the country.

By October, cases were being reported throughout the nation. Schools began closing and strangely for influenza, as opposed to the typically vulnerable children and the elderly, it was people in the prime of life who were dying.

An article from the Miyako Shimbun of Nov 9 reported that according to the Public Health department of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, "...over the 31 days of October, 621 people died of influenza, the majority due to pneumonia." In Osaka, over 20% of the drivers of the city's electric railways had become infected, causing a breakdown in services. Telephone operators became sickened at such a rapid rate that it became impossible to send telegrams announcing deaths. The city's hospitals and crematories were overwhelmed with bodies.

Deaths from the flu peaked at 130,000 in the month of November and by the time the first wave had tapered off, about 38% of Japan's population, or 21.16 million people, had been sickened, with 266,000 deaths.

The second wave, which began around December 1919 and peaked a month later, differed from the first wave in that while the overall number of those sickened was fewer -- probably due to more people having acquired immunity -- it proved fatal to a higher percentage of those contracting the disease. A Shikoku newspaper noted in December that the mortality rate of approximately 20% was "unprecedented for an epidemic."

In Tokyo, the period from mid-January to early February 1920 is remembered as "three weeks of hell." From Jan 14 onward, the city's newspapers issued daily reports of fatalities. In one edition, a newspaper ran four full pages containing nothing but obituary announcements framed in heavy black borders.

Not surprisingly the impact on the Japanese economy was severe, particularly on the coal and copper mining industries.

Not having the scientific means to identify the virus -- development of the electron microscope was still over a decade away -- scientists were in the dark about the nature of the virus. In desperation, people turned to oddball preventions and cures, such as a "medication" produced from grinding up roasted earthworms.

The pandemic left a total of 453,452 known fatalities in its wake. Interestingly, in 1919 Ehime Prefecture issued five advisories that citizens were encouraged to follow: maintain distance from the sick; avoid crowded places; wear a mask; gargle frequently; and take extra care for children and the elderly.

Add the current advice to wash hands frequently,  notes Shukan Gendai, and you've got a prophylactic regimen that's practically unchanged from a century ago.

And that's not the only case of deja vu. The Kobe Shimbun of Jan 23, 1920 reported face masks were in short supply, with prices for them soaring, leading the authorities to urge people "to make their own masks." Sound familiar?

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

Now that's what I call a pandemic.

Orders of magnitude worse than what is happening with Covid-19.

Ueah, never mind that technology and medical technology has improved by orders of magnitude since 1920.

16 ( +16 / -0 )

More people died from the H1N1 flu of 1918-1920 than died in both world wars, combined. Nevertheless, it is almost completely missing from the history books, novels, songs, and movies. At some point the current flu will subside, and I wonder if we will once again forget that it happened. We remember the First World War, we remember the Second World War, but we have mostly forgotten the flu pandemic of a hundred years ago. Why?

My mother lived in New York City during the pandemic of a hundred years ago, and witnessed its horror. As a youth she told me often about it, and to this day I cannot forget the stories she told me. It was a living nightmare.

8 ( +10 / -2 )


The above link is to an article about avigan, the drug that PM Abe has been promoting. The NYT does not think it has much promise.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

And if you want to look further you have the TWO versions of the black death about 100 and 200 years earlier. The British and French are still ocasionally finding mass burial sites from back then, London found one only a year or two ago that wasn't registered anywhere when cleaning up an old site that had been built on top of before a tower block was due for construction (on a bbc show last year).

I wonder whjat we would find if a propper check of history happened further back?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Orders of magnitude worse than what is happening with Covid-19.

If we didn't have the internet or TV, covid19 would have been just as worse.

It because we have the tech to get the info out much quicker, we are able to prepare for it and get it under control quicker.

With that said, it also because of technology, that this virus spread much quicker too.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

"Orders of magnitude worse than what is happening with Covid-19."....?! How would you even know, its far from over!

5 ( +6 / -1 )

At some point the current flu will subside

Covid-19 is not the flu. It is much more insidious and deadly. Calling it the flu is to deceive people into thinking it is not bad.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

Regarding the "orders of magnitude" comparison, it is because Covid-19 has the potential to equal some of the worst pandemics of the past that so much concern has been expressed, and measures have been taken to mediate its severity.

I am pleased with the response to the novel coronavirus here in California. The state government took early action to prevent the spread of the disease, and consequently it has been relatively mild here. While about 1 in 8 Americans live in California, or about 12%, of the number of fatalities in the nation, only between 1 and 2 percent have been here. Social distancing has worked, even in the absence of effective testing. Once we get rapid testing in place on a massive scale, despite Trump's efforts to prevent it, then we can congregate safely once again.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Burning Bush

What on earth are you talking about? There have already been over 270,000 deaths (more than the number you quoted) from just over 4,000,000 Covid-19 infections. Now that's what I call a pandemic. Time to start questioning Trump and Fox News so you can understand how serious it is.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

@Serendipitous - I agree with you that this is quite serious

The quotation of 266,000 deaths Burning Bush is referring to is for Japan only. The value you are quoting is worldwide. This is quite a big difference.

I am neither a Trump supporter nor a Fox news watcher but just clarifying the numbers here.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites