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Number 1 Shimbun

History Lessons - A look back at last century’s pandemic

The first flu patients in Japan began showing symptoms around April, 1918. Initially, reported Shukan Gendai (May 2-9), it was referred to as the sumo kaze (sumo cold) because a contingent of sumo wrestlers contracted it while on a Taiwan tour. Three of them expired before they could return home. As the contagion spread, the summer grand sumo tournament in Tokyo was cancelled. 

At Yokosuka, 150 sailors in the Imperial Navy aboard the Suwo, a battleship salvaged from the Russian Navy after the Battle of Port Arthur and kept as a war trophy by Japan, contracted the disease. It soon spread to the army, rapidly filling a hospital located in present-day Shinjuku ward to capacity. By this time people were referring to it as guntai-byo (the military disease). 

The first newspaper article to cover the pandemic was in the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun of June 6, 1918 with the headline “Strange epidemic in Spain.” At that time, Japan’s newspaper readers still saw it as “foreign news” that would have little effect on their own lives. 

That was to change from late September when, as the Gifu Shimbun (May 4) reported, female workers at the Nichibo textile factory in Ogaki City began collapsing at their looms. More than 8,000 lives were lost in Gifu prefecture and news coverage at the time noted, “Each day several dozen caskets were lined up at the crematory in Takayama, and were cremated without Buddhist priests even taking the time to chant sutras.”


THIS WAS THE SPEARHEAD of the “first wave” of what came to be called the ryukosei kanbo (literally, contagious influenza). By October, the contagion had spread throughout the nation. Schools began closing and it was noted more than vulnerable age groups such as children and the elderly, people in the prime of life were dying. 

The prime minister during the worst of the outbreak was Takashi Hara, who had succeeded army general Masatake Terauchi in September 1918. A former journalist for the Yubin Hochi Shimbun (later absorbed by Yomiuri), Hara was not only the first commoner to serve as prime minister, but also the first Christian. 

Like his counterpart in the UK a century later, Hara also had the distinction of contracting the Spanish flu. After running a sustained high fever, he took to bed, but recovered and returned to work without requiring hospitalization. He was cut down by an assassin in Tokyo central rail station on November 4, 1921.

In Osaka, over 20 percent of the drivers of the city’s commuter trains and trams became infected, adversely affecting rail services. Another job category severely hit was telephone operators, who called in sick in such numbers that there weren’t enough people available to transcribe telegrams announcing deaths. 

The flu peaked at 130,000 in November and by the time the first wave had tapered off, about 38 percent of the population, or 21.16 million people, had been sickened, with 266,000 deaths. 

By May 1919, flu fatalities had tapered off to zero; but from December of that year, a second wave began and peaked a month later. Health authorities noted that while the overall number of patients was fewer than in the first wave—probably due to more people having acquired immunity—around 20 percent of those contracting the disease died.


IN ANOTHER VIEW FROM a distant mirror, the Kobe Shimbun of April 9 reported that “Unethical businesses were gouging the prices of face masks.” Its issue of November 30, 1918 noted that at least 13,000 people in Hyogo Prefecture had contracted the flu, with numbers growing exponentially. causing schools and factories to close. 

In Tokyo, the period from mid-January to early February was described as “three weeks of hell.” From Jan. 14 onward, the city’s newspapers issued daily reports of fatalities, with each day carrying more black-bordered obituary announcements. One paper was said to have run four full pages containing nothing but obits. 

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

Not having the scientific means to identify the virus—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 two waves of the pandemic killed at least 450,000 people in Japan, and many more in its colonial territories of Korea (230,000) and Taiwan (50,000). Among the victims were a number of notable figures, including Prince Tsunehisa Takeda (age 36), author and critic Hogetsu Shimamura (47) and noted architect Kingo Tatsuno, designer of the Bank of Japan building (64).

According to the late Keio University professor Akira Hayami’s 474-page history of the pandemic, titled The Spanish Influenza that Struck Japan: the First World War between Humanity and Viruses, in January, 1919, the Public Health Bureau of the Ministry of Internal affairs issued several advisories to citizens: maintain distance from sick persons; avoid crowded places; wear a face mask or, if unavailable, use a scarf or handkerchief—practically the same regimen being recommended today, with the addition of frequent hand-washing. 


(K.M.)

Published in: June 2020

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