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April 24, 2011


Uh oh, I see some book shopping in my near future.

Thanks Doc Science, this is a fascinating post.

Yet he also estimates that during this period population numbers for the Japanese archipelago remained roughly stable -- the epidemics were horrible, but not catastrophic. I wonder why not?

I don't. It's basic ecology. Any species, including humans, can reproduce far beyond replacement. That means the population will tend to push against the limit of carrying capacity, basically available food minus losses to endemic parasitism. Population loss to things like plague tend to be made up very quickly unless they're so catastrophic that they change the ecosystem, e.g. by letting competitors move in and take over the niche.

If there's an anomaly that needs to be explained, it's not why the Japanese population was able to rebound quickly but why the British population didn't. As I understand it, the key reason is that the plague led to changes in land use. When the peasants died and stopped farming the land, the lords took over their former fields for pasture. That effectively reduced the carrying capacity- or reallocated some of it from humans to sheep- and prevented the population from bouncing right back.

I guess there are different ways to ask the question. If it were 'how did the Japanese avoid the kind of society altering epidemics that struck the West', there are a few possible points to note. First, Japanese fastidiousness was remarked upon by every Western foreigner to be in Japan, from the early Jesuits. Second, Jared Diamond noted that living in close proximity to livestock conferred Europeans with a certain natural resistance, and this was not the case in Japan. Finally, Japanese have a rather deeply held horror of death (until the capital reached a size where it became impractical, it was moved every time the ruler died) which probably supported the effect of cities clearing out when death struck.

When you think about it, 25-35% is not so bad. The native american population suffered from anywhere from 60 to 80% attrition when they came in contact with Europeans. Plague estimates vary, but communities would have been lucky to get away with 35% attrition.

Anyway, interesting stuff, Doc, thanks.

To compare the European and Japanese experience, it would be useful to have some feel for things like whether the various plagues hit differentially between adults and children. If a plague hits mostly children, you can bounce back relatively quickly by having more. If it hits mostly adults, you have to wait until the children are old enough to reproduce -- which gives more time for things like land-use patterns to change. Also, if a plague hits mostly adults, there are fewer people to work the land, which also would slow down the population recovery.

It would also be interesting to know whether the Japanese experience with lethal epidemics happened over the course of a decade, or over a much shorter period (like the 3 years in Europe). A rapid die-off would, I suspect, be more shattering to society than one which took longer.

P.S. I just love the phrase "a wealthy, court society, . . . rather similar to those of regular people -- only with much prettier clothes."


As I understand it, the key reason is that the plague led to changes in land use.

Do you have a cite for that? Because I have heard of no such thing. The general consensus seems to be that the plague led to higher wages and freer movement of labor.

Psychologically, the death of 50% of the population was truly traumatic, while it looks as though the Japanese weren't so traumatized by their epidemics. I suspect that the comparatively fluid, unstructured Japanese peasant society was better able to adjust to the shock.


Actually, my point is rather "why did waves of epidemics not have a destructive effect on Japanese society?" Experiencing an epidemic that wipes out a third of the population *every* generation should be pretty traumatic -- but it doesn't seem to have been.

Island populations are *always* the most vulnerable to epidemics. My assumption is that the once-a-generation epidemics came from China or Korea. The fact that they didn't happen more often suggests that travel to the mainland wasn't as common as I might expect, and that the Japanese fishing fleet wasn't all that large or navigationally skilled. This may be, of course, because Japanese sailors would have been the first ones to get sick with mainland diseases.

One thing that surprised me in this book, actually, is that there is so little mention of fish (etc) in the Japanese diet -- it doesn't seem to have the crucial role it had in north-western Europe at the time.

lj: I forgot to mention in my report:

Japanese fastidiousness was remarked upon by every Western foreigner to be in Japan, from the early Jesuits

But they arrived only at the end of the period Farris considers. The evidence from the early medieval period is very different.

For the Kamakura period, he says:

Regular bathing was not yet a well-established custom and would not become so for several centuries. .. Given the numerous references to corpses in the streets and the santiary provisions of the day, both Kyoto and Kamakura were probably filthy centers of disease. A report on an excavation at Yuigahama beach in Kamakura notes a mass grave filled with refuse and human and animal remains. The same area seems to have contained a market. With regard to Kyoto, archaeologists suspect that relatives and friends merely abandoned the sick and deceased on the banks of rivers.
In a word, ewww.

In the early Muromachi, the Japanese had definitely started bathing regularly -- Korean visitors remarked on it, though it wasn't yet a peasant custom. But sanitation in Kyoto was still horrible -- the night soil industry had only just begun, and the streets were cleaned poorly if at all. Kyotans would have needed the expression "garde a l'eau!" just as much as their contemporary Edinburghians -- the only difference was that Kyoto didn't have as many two-story buildings.

Interesting. I didn't know the point about the advent of Japanese notion of cleanliness, which is obviously something that Japanese wouldn't want to trumpet. I'm not going to get the book for a long time, but is the absence of large scale animal husbandry is one of the points that Diamond so I wonder what Farris mentions about this.

I'm not sure about the absence of mention of seafood. Jomon middens show that their diet was pretty diverse and full of seafood, and it probably accounts for why a hunter-gatherer culture like the Jomon was able to last so much longer and was only overcome by the Yayoi culture iat such a late time historically, because agriculture offered no significant advantages until you got the increased yields of rice paddy farming.

I've got no sense of how epidemics affected Korea or China. What does Farris mention about those as historical phenomena?

I'm a bit confused by this statement

Bear in mind that "medieval" is a misnomer -- there was no earlier "Classical" period of higher population and organization in Japan.

I believe that the kofun in Japan are evidence of a large labor force, organized under a central ruler. In fact, the largest kofun are property of the Imperial family, so archeologists and researchers haven't been allowed to even enter the grounds until the last couple of years. link

What's particularly interesting is the rapid population growth during the 16th century, which was a period of fairly constant warfare. This has been known for a while, but the reasons are unclear.

Doug M.


've got no sense of how epidemics affected Korea or China. What does Farris mention about those as historical phenomena?

He doesn't talk about it directly, but McNeill does -- and it's basic population biology.

The mainland always exports diseases to islands; warmer regions export them to cooler; larger populations export them to smaller. Both Japan and the British Isles (at the other end of Eurasia) have historically been very vulnerable to diseases imported from the Eurasian landmass.

Diseases will tend to show up in the islands, wreak havoc, and then die out for lack of unexposed victims. Meanwhile on the populous mainland the diseases (smallpox, measles, plague, influenza, etc) will be able to keep going, and diseases will adapt to the people while people develop immunity to the diseases. On the mainland, an epidemic disease can become a constant, low-key childhood illness, while a new generation grows up on the islands that has never encountered it.

Any regular contact with China would be bound to be very problematic for Japan from a disease POV, because what McNeill calls "the disease gradient" is strongly downhill from China. Korea, because it's colder and much less densely populated, is less of a danger.

There's no question in my mind that sakoku is a big reason Japan's population didn't crash the way Europe's did in the Black Death. That epidemic, McNeill argues, is the best-known example of the cultures (and disease pools) of Eurasia starting to come into regular contact, and there were major epidemics in China during the medieval period, as well. Measles probably spread from India during this period, too, and smallpox circulated more strenuously.

lj: re Classical / medieval:

I don't get the sense, though, that Japan had a Classical period of higher technological development and larger cities which later dropped off, as happened in the European medieval. The fact that the Japanese peasants were still only lightly tied to any particular location, and were willing to become hunter-gatherers again when crops failed, suggests to me that they were on the first cycle of their civilization, not the second (or later).

Just to clarify, by Classical, you mean something equivalent to Greek and Roman civilizations? I don't know what the current opinion of the field is (or even what field), but I have the vague feeling that this is problematic, because it is so hard to map civilization timelines onto one another. For instance, the Bronze Age, which seems to be a pretty easy period to define (start: Smelting bronze stop:discovering iron-smelting) but doesn't seem to map at all to Asian history. So something like Classical might be even harder to define, especially when you get to 'cycles' of civilization, which has a problematic relationship to notions of social darwinism.


The European Middle Ages are defined by being *between* two periods (the Classical and the Renaissance-Modern) of higher population, technology, literacy, urbanization, etc. To use the term "medieval" to describe Japan thus seems to me problematic, because Japan had no equivalent of the Classical period. For Japan, the closest thing to "Classical" was China -- but China was contemporary, not the past.

I am particularly cautious about using "medieval" about Japan because superficial similarities to medieval Europe (e.g. swords! sort-of feudalism!) can easily lead one to assume that the two civilizations were structurally or historically similar.

I suggest that, whatever its biological capacity, England, and indeed all of western Europe, was not able to restore its pre-Plague population quickly due to social customs. First, sexual mores (or morals) severely restricted the level of out-of-wedlock birth. (You can connect this to Christianity, or to patrilineal descent systems, which dictate that an illegitimate child has essentially no family, or both.) Second, custom did not support extended family households, so men could not marry until able to support an independent household. If you restrict illegitimacy, and prevent men from marrying young, you greatly reduce a society's reproductive capacity. The flipside is that you have a society where the peasants are, on average, richer than they were in east Asia.

Quite a lot of land in England was owned by people who had no post plague surviving close relatives and thus wound up going to the church, an organisation essentially focussed on bribing people not to reproduce by allowing them to live a relatively pleasant life in a monastory or nunnery.

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