The history of disease in Japan over the era 500 to 1600 can be divided into four subperiods. During the first, 500 to 700, evidence indicates the importation of maladies such as smallpox, and frequent communication between the Japanese and their continental neighbors would suggest that epidemics were more common than the sources indicate.

In the second subperiod, from 700 to about 1050, the population suffered from repeated devastating epidemics of killer diseases including smallpox, measles, influenza, dysentery, and mumps. These important infections attacked a population that by and large had no immunities and killed great numbers of adults. The epidemics resulted in population loss, agricultural stagnation, a shortage of labor, revisions in laws dealing with land tenure, tax structure, and local government, a growing maldistribution of income, the rise of a transcendental religion (Buddhism) and millennialism, as well as a sensitivity to the evanescence of life in literature. Other important diseases of this age of plagues included beriberi, malaria, diabetes, and tuberculosis.

The third subperiod, 1050-1260, saw the killer infections of the former period transformed into en-demicity and thus to childhood illnesses. It is fairly clear that smallpox and measles were attacking primarily children by the mid-thirteenth century, and probably even earlier. Influenza, however, may have grown in virulence, especially after 1150, when the climate turned colder and wetter. Other serious maladies included leprosy and chickenpox. The period from 1050 to 1260 may have seen some demographic expansion, notably in the east, but disastrous weather patterns and ensuing famine and pestilence began to close this "window of opportunity" around 1150.

The last subperiod, 1260-1600, represented an epoch when disease had a decidedly decreased impact on the archipelago. The Japanese escaped importation of the plague by defeating the Mongols in the 1200s, and by 1365 neither infection nor famine nor war was restricting the growth of Japan's population. The era 1420-1540 may have seen some increased virulence of disease, accompanied by civil war, but the second half of the sixteenth century was remarkably disease-free. Two new infections, syphilis and a relatively harmless variant of the AIDS virus, were brought to Japan from the West, but the effect of these ailments seems to have been limited.

Examination of the sweep of 1,100 years of disease history suggests that demographic trends in Japan were almost the mirror opposite of western Europe. Only in the eras 1050-1150 and 1500-1600 did Japan and the West both experience population growth. To the extent that one equates population growth with economic growth, it seems clear that Japan and western Europe were each led along substantially different paths by a differing biological past.

W. Wayne Farris

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