Japan – Smallpox – 735-7 A.D. and after

tsuyu no yo wa
tsuyu no yo nagara
sari nagara

This world of dew
is truly a world of dew,
and yet…and yet….

This poem was written by Issa, one of the greatest of the haiku poets, on the death of his little daughter. Issa’s life was a long series of tragedies, rarely referred to directly in his poetry. He was a devout Buddhist, and dew was the classic image for the evanescence of life.

Half a century earlier, Fukuda Chiyo-ni, one of the best women writers of haiku, had also written a poem for the little son who had loved dragon-flies and died young:

tombo tsuri kyou

wa doko made

itta yara

Dragonfly catcher,
How far have you gone today
In your wandering

Both children had died of smallpox.

By the 18th century, smallpox was endemic in Japan, but the disease was largely associated with children, for whom it was often fatal.

According to contemporary Chronicles – unfortunately, I have not had access to the original sources – in the 6th century, a King of Korea sent Buddhist images to Japan. This was said to have angered the kami, the native gods, who later took their revenge with a violent epidemic. In 584, more images, texts, priests and even a temple architect were sent to encourage conversion:

Again the land was filled with those who were attacked with sores and died thereof. The persons thus inflicted with sores said: “Our bodies are as if they were burnt, as if they were beaten, as if they were broken, and so lamenting they died.”

The debate raged as to whether the disease was the punishment of the Shinto gods on account of the honour paid to the new religion, or the punishment for not accepting Buddhism and its commandments wholeheartedly.

After the Emperor Bidatsu – believed to be the first Emperor to die of smallpox – was succeeded by his brother Yomei, who also allegedly died of the disease, Bidatsu’s widow, the Empress Suiko, came to the throne and ruled for thirty-five years. Prince Shotoku, Yomei’s son, acted as regent, and when his father was stricken in 585, he vowed to build a temple to the “Buddha of Medicine”. This was the Hōryū-ji at Nara.

Other early sources relate that the later epidemic was brought in by a Japanese fisherman shipwrecked in Korea. He returned to Kyushu, bringing the disease with him, which then spread.

As Nara grew in size and the country developed more urban centers and better communications, waves of disease became increasingly serious. In 735-7, there was a terrible epidemic in which it is estimated that about a third of the population died. This led to major social, economic and religious repercussions.

The Emperor Shomu, himself a Buddhist, ordered the building of temples and, finally, vowed the construction of the Daibutsu – Great Buddha – at the Tōdai-ji in Nara, one of the largest images in the world, in the form of Vairocana, who was believed to have negotiated a truce with the indigenous gods.

After the great epidemic, smallpox became established in Japan and there were repeated outbreaks, although none as devastating as that of the early 8th century.

As elsewhere, medical literature devoted to the disease developed*. The 10th century I Shinho recommended the use of red for sufferers – hangings, bedding, clothing, etc, to mitigate the effects of the illness, something also believed in Europe. This persisted in folk practice in many countries into the 19th century. The I Shinho also recommended the setting up of isolation hospitals, indicating some awareness of the mechanics of transmission.

The I Shinho was written about the same time as the Persian physician and scholar Rhazes (al-Rāzī) wrote his treatise On Smallpox and Measles and Chien Chungyang wrote the first scientific description of smallpox in China. According to Joseph Needham, Rhazes was visited by a Chinese medical scholar in Baghdad, but whether they shared information is not known.

In the indigenous, as opposed to Buddhist tradition, in Japan, smallpox was deified as hōsōgami, the smallpox god, who was placated, especially in Okinawa, with songs and dances and other rituals and with much use of the colour red. There is even a collection of smallpox poetry to which, unfortunately, I have not had access. In another strand of folk belief, various heroes were credited with expelling the smallpox demon, which became a popular subject for prints.

*An extremely interesting Sino-Japanese manuscript on smallpox dated c.1720 can be seen on line at Michael Kühn Antiquariatwww.kuehn-books.de  

Donald R. Hopkins, The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History, Chicago University Press, 2002

Joseph Needham, et al., Science and Civilisation in China, vol VI, Cambridge University Press, 2000

tsombo tsuri kyou

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