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Edging Toward Japan: The impact of pandemics on Japanese history needs rethinking

A plague doctor of 17th century Rome.

By Damian Flanagan

    Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, while reading up on Japan's response to the crisis and trying to figure out why deaths were so low in Japan compared to European countries, I was startled to discover a profoundly important historical fact that I had never noticed before.

    There was, I read with some amazement, no confirmed history of the plague in Japan until the nation opened its doors to the rest of the world in the Meiji era (1868-1912). It is for this reason that the Japanese word "pesuto" ("plague") is not a native word, but a Japanese pronunciation of the German word "Pest", meaning "plague."

    I've read through the history of Japan on many occasions, but it had somehow not occurred to me how strange it is that the Black Death never features in Japanese history, despite the Black Death devastating everywhere from Britain to China between the 1330s and 1350s.

    What impact did this absence of the plague have on Japanese history? Many children learn in history classes in Britain that the dramatic reduction of the population in Britain in the mid-14th century changed the balance of power between lords and serfs by creating a manpower shortage leading to demands for better conditions of servitude, culminating in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, and accelerating the end of serfdom.

    Did the lack of the plague in Japan mean that there was less rebellion against the prevailing class order, making the social hierarchies less challenged? Weighing up these complex questions is, I am sure, the stuff of PhD theses.

    But I am curious to know what knowledge existed in medieval Japan about the great plague that had ravaged the rest of the world in the 14th century. Were they aware in Japan that the Black Death had caused mass death in China while they had been miraculously spared? Or did they learn of it later? Did the nation consciously self-isolate? And if so, by what means exactly -- by restricting all shipping from foreign powers?

    I'm now wondering whether the origins of the "sakoku" ("closed country") policy adopted for over 200 years in the Edo Period (1603-1868) are to be found in attitudes formed not just in immediate response to the later threat of European infiltration, but rather as a continuation of an early response to the disaster of the Black Death.

    In the late 13th century, Japan successfully -- indeed miraculously -- resisted not one, but two full-scale invasion attempts by the mighty Mongols, who had conquered much of the known world, from Korea to Hungary. They were helped by fortuitous storms that wrecked the Mongol fleets that became known as "kamikaze" ("divine winds"), embedding in the national psyche the idea that Japan was being protected by the gods themselves, a notion of indestructibility which would ultimately have disastrous consequences in the final days of World War II.

    But did the Japanese also historically regard themselves as not just being miraculously saved from foreign invasion but from worldwide plagues -- or were they simply ignorant of the disasters they had dodged? I'm keen to know how strongly the threat of disease registered in the Japanese sense of pride in their island nation.

    To borrow some famous words of Shakespeare from his play "Richard II," if the pre-modern Japanese people thought of their land as "This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war", they would have had far greater grounds for doing so than the habitually infected and invaded people of medieval England.

    @DamianFlanagan

    (This is Part 31 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.

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    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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