Sources on Diseases of Japan

Japanese sources that contain information about the diseases of Japan are abundant and of excellent qual ity. The most important are contemporary reports of epidemics, medical books with descriptions of the symptoms and treatment of important diseases, government documents that issued warnings or commissioned relief measures, temple registers that recorded causes of death, and general writings of the period. Early in the twentieth century, two pioneering Japanese medical historians, Fujikawa Yu and Yamazaki Tasuku, compiled references to disease from many Japanese sources. Their works still stand as basic references on the history of disease in Japan.

Some Western sources also contain references to disease in Japan, but most of these were written before or after the Tokugawa period because during that period there were few Western visitors. Thus Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Dutch adventurers who lived in Japan in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries wrote of illnesses that were observed among the Japanese as well as diseases that seemed to be absent. And two and one-half centuries later, in the late nineteenth century, when Westerners again arrived in Japan, they, too, wrote of the diseases they noticed. Western observations reported at the beginning and the end of the Tokugawa period are of value as benchmarks that help to identify the illnesses that were prevalent during this period.

The diseases of early modern Japan can be divided into two general categories: those that are easily identified on the basis of their symptoms and epidemiological characteristics, and those that are not. Ailments in the first category are primarily acute infectious diseases that have distinctive symptoms, affect many people within a short period of time, and are therefore highly visible. These infections, which have well-established histories, are easily recognized in Japanese sources. Diseases in the second category present symptoms that are vague or general. They may have been very important in causing illness or death, but they cannot be subsumed under any modern disease classification.

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