JACAR Newsletter Number 33

January 20, 2021

Special Feature : The Spanish Flu in Japan: What We Can Learn from JACAR’s Archival Records on Infectious Diseases

Special Feature : The Spanish Flu in Japan: What We Can Learn from JACAR’s Archival Records on Infectious Diseases
 As of today, the global spread of COVID-19 has yet to halt. More than 150,000 people in Japan have been infected, adding to nearly 60 million worldwide. There have been some 1.5 million deaths (as of the end of November 2020, according to the WHO and Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare).

 Our new decade is one marked by uncertainty, with a potential increase in COVID-19 outbreaks coming as vaccine development continues. Yet we have a long history battling microscopic foes, from which we’ve learned many lessons. One of the most notorious viruses we’ve contended with as a species is the mid-17th century bubonic plague and the early 20th century Spanish flu. The Spanish flu is often compared to COVID-19, since they both spread similarly along with the movement of people. In lieu of such facts, this article introduces historical materials related to the Spanish flu, so we can better understand it and our contemporary situation from a historical context.

 The Spanish flu (also called the 1918 flu pandemic) was a novel form of influenza that spread in all seasons, as opposed to the seasonal influenza that typically spreads in winter. The Spanish flu traveled throughout the world between March 1918 to 1920. There are numerous theories about its initial outbreak, but signs point to it starting in Kansas, and spreading in military compounds, prisons, factories, and elsewhere. The disease gained traction in the midst of World War I, when young American soldiers were headed to Europe. They carried the Spanish flu with them in deployments abroad in Europe as well as in Africa, Asia, and South America. During the war, countries in the midst of fighting often concealed information about weaknesses and sickness, so the spread of influenza was largely covered up. However, neutral countries including Spain reported on their poor condition, which lead to the disease’s name being coined.

 In Japanese the Spanish flu was originally called the “ryūkōseikanbō,” with no mention of any nation. In 1922, the Ministry of Home Affairs' Hygiene Bureau published a book titled Ryūkōseikanbō (reprinted in 2008). The book conveys Japan’s infection conditions and countermeasures as well as those overseas. It shows the behavior and thinking of people who confronted the infectious disease in the 1920s. However, there are limits to the book’s statistical rigor and a lack of descriptions regarding the military according to Shuichi Nishimura, who wrote a commentary for the reprint. The epidemic’s impact on the military would not have been disclosed.

 The epidemic within the Japanese military was detailed in a study by Akira Hayami, who specializes in Japan’s response to the Spanish flu. The status of infections on the warship Yahagi, which Hayami described in a book, is documented in "Warship Yahagi Influenza Report" (Ref: C10080416900) [Image 1] (1st and 2nd images). After anchoring in Singapore in November 1918, the flu that broke out on board the ship quickly spread, affecting most of the crew and causing deaths. In the report, it is said that there was groaning with distressed voices coming from suffering patients on the ship (5th image) [Image 2]. It can be known that "almost all of the crew members on the Warship Mogami have this infection" (Ref: C10081243200, 1st image).

 According to a report from a hospital in the city Kure, the Warship Ibuki’s flu outbreak caused 86 people to be infected in Chitose. We can see how it spread across Settsu, Asama, Iwami, and Yahagi with dozens infected (Ref: C08021414000, 3rd image). There are several historical materials in the JACAR database showing the status of infection in the Army, including "Taisho 7th year Mito Mamoru Jigun Army Units Epidemic Influenza Epidemic Article" (Ref: C13120713900), and "The emergence of the influenza patient" (Ref: C03024983800) [Image 3] (2nd image). Also refer to the "Taisho Spanish Cold Pandemic and the Imperial Japanese Army" of the National Institute for Defense Studies of the Ministry of Defense for the response to the army's epidemic flu.

[Image 1] " Warship Yahagi influenza report" (Ref: C10080416900)
[Image 2] " Warship Yahagi influenza report" (Ref: C10080416900) (5th image)
[Image 3] " The emergence of the influenza patient" (Ref: C03024983800)
 The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long collected information on the status of infections around the world through consular officers on diplomatic missions abroad. Reports include information on an influenza epidemic in Honolulu (Ref: B12082333700). There is also an article that tells about the death of an international student, titled " Student studying abroad Nakamura Masajiro death October, 1918" (Ref: B16080844000).

[Image 4] "Jinan contagious flu case" (Ref: B12082332200)
 As an indication of domestic developments, in "Popular flu treatment shifting national treasury surplus expenditures" (Ref: A13100373500) [Image 5], the rapidly increasing costs for flu patients and nurses used even in a second reserve, so approval to spend was given from the national treasury surplus. In the Diet, a resolution was passed by the House of Representatives to implement a "proposal for a thorough study of the flu’s prevention method" (Ref: A14080185800).

[Image 5] "Popular flu treatment expenses use national treasury surplus " (Ref: A13100373500)
 To better understand the circumstances, it is helpful to look at old media reports. Mr. Hayami sought out newspapers from across Japan to understand the infections. Through JACAR, via the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, you can search in "The Japanese-American News" (a Japanese newspaper published in San Francisco by Japanese immigrants from 1899). There are articles such as the September 22, 1918 one "U.S. military camp flu epidemic" (Ref: J20010452800) [Image 6] as well as "Tokyo flu epidemic" (Ref: J20010536900). You can learn the status of infections in numerous areas. For example, there is an article on the "Dramatic increase in demand for cut flowers, for funerals and sympathies due to the outbreak of influenza" (November 1, 1918"; Ref: J20010454600). There is also a piece on how "many Alaskan natives are killed because of the Spanish flu" (September 10, 1919; Ref: J20010516000). In addition, the newspaper says there is a risk of the virus or “devil's illness” spreading out west (September 23, 1918; Ref: J20010453000). It can also be seen that the usage of "Spain" came into circulation at this time. Two years later, there was an article saying, "Carelessness is absolutely forbidden. The number of new patients is increasing in San Francisco" (February 1, 1920; (Ref: J20010543900).

[Image 6] "U.S. military camp epidemic" " The Japanese-American News” (September 22, 1918; Ref: J20010452800, provided by Hoji Shinbun Digital Collection, Hoover Institution Library & Archives)
 The Spanish flu raged globally, killing tens of millions of people worldwide and nearly 500,000 in Japan. Although the pandemic occurred some 100 years ago, we can learn much from historical materials about how it progressed as well as how it was controlled and stopped. Similarly yet from further in the past, it may be helpful to further examine Daniel Defoe's "Journal of the Plague Year," which depicts the spread and end of the bubonic plague in a reportage style. Defoe wrote how, as a reference for posterity, it was not only the sick people who caused the plague to spread so rapidly to healthy people. Rather asymptomatic individuals were largely responsible without being aware of it.

 We ought to examine the past for valuable lessons and examples, not writing it off as a series of transcripts. Rather, by reading the records left by our predecessors, we can better understand how to confront our current challenges. JACAR will do its best to continue providing helpful materials.


Crosby, Alfred W., Shijō saiaku no infuruenza ― wasure rareta pandemikku [Original title: America's Forgotten Pandemic], trans. Hidekazu Nishimura, Misuzu Shobo, 2009, original 1976.

Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year [Pesuto no kioku], trans. Masaaki Takeda, Kenkyusha 2017 republication of original work from 1722.

Edited by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Hygiene Bureau, Supein kaze' ōhayari no kiroku [Record of the epidemic of the Spanish flu], Toyo Bunko 2008 republication of original book published by Heibonsha 1922.

Hayami, Akira, Nihon o osotta Supein infuruenza ― jinrui to uirusu no daiichiji sekai sensō [Spanish Flu’s Attack on Japan: The First World War between Mankind and Viruses], Fujiwara Shoten, 2006.

Yasuhiro Kawano, Assistant Researcher, JACAR