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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

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