People were scared of smallpox for a long time because it had high infectivity and even if patients could escape death, it left pockmarks behind. In 1796, Edward Jenner, an English doctor, invented a cowpox vaccine and in 1980 the World Health Organization (WHO) finally declared the global eradication of smallpox. Since then, no one has been infected. Smallpox is the only infectious disease which humans have eradicated.

Medical science in the Edo period

It is said that smallpox was brought to Japan in the 6th century. There were many outbreaks in the Edo period and even some Tokugawa Shoguns contracted smallpox. The NDL has various materials which describe specific symptoms of smallpox or smallpox vaccines.

Tosomenjozu (Record of pockmarked faces)


Smallpox causes a high fever followed by a rash mainly on the face and limbs. This rash turns into pustules and falls off as scabs, resulting in pockmarks. So at one time smallpox was said to be the disease which would determine one’s appearance and people prayed for mild symptoms. This book depicts a number of faces of infected persons and conveys how smallpox left pits in various ways.

Gyuto shoko (Report on cowpox)

Gyuto shoko

In 1849, Otto Gottlieb Mohnike, a German doctor who served as a Dutch factory doctor in Deshima, Nagasaki, brought smallpox vaccination to Japan. This successful experience led to cowpox vaccination spreading around Japan. Narabayashi Soken, the author of this book, also contributed to promoting this vaccination. This book recorded stories of successful vaccinations and information on the method of vaccination.

Smallpox and customs

In Japan, people personified smallpox and called them hososhin (smallpox demon), currying favor with them for mild symptoms and immediate recovery, and using things they disliked to ward them off.

A smallpox demon enshrined from Hoso kokoroegusa

Hososhin tatematsuru zu

From olden times, the color red was believed to have magical power and protect one from evil. There was a tradition that hososhin also dislike red*, so people put red clothes on children and used red for common objects.

*It was also said that because hososhin likes the color red, one’s symptom would get milder. Some also said that hososhin was considered to be a kind of guardian deity.

Tametomo no bui mogasakishin wo sirizoku no zu (Tametomo defeating smallpox demon with his martial might)

Tametomo no bui mogasakishin wo sirizoku no zu

MINAMOTO no Tametomo, a samurai in the end of the Heian period, was known for his bravery. He joined the ex-emperor on the Sutoku side and faced defeat in the Hogen rebellion. Banished to Izu Oshima Island, he controlled the Izu islands, so was hunted down and ultimately killed himself. This illustration depicts him chasing away hososhin according to a legend that it is because Tametomo kept hososhin away that smallpox did not spread in Hachijojima Island. This picture is interpreted in various ways. For example, some people say that the white paper at the lower left is a deed of apology from the hososhin and some say the three figures at the upper left are all hososhin while others say the figure opening his arms is hososhin and the two behind him are human.
Despite the fact that once smallpox did spread in Hachijojima Island, people’s faith in him remained intact.

Plague/Black Death

Plague, which is originally an infectious disease of rats, can also infect humans. There were many pandemic outbreaks of plague in Europe in the past. During the 14th century, in particular, it raged throughout Europe, killing between a third or two thirds of the population. Plague is not as terrifying as it used to be because early treatment with antibiotics can save patients. However, it is still a life-threatening disease in some regions of the world.

Japanese people and plague

In Japan, the first plague outbreak occurred in 1899, which was brought from across the sea. Although several epidemics repeated after that, there has been no case of infection discovered in Japan for 80 years owing to a quarantine and exterminating rats.

Neko hone otte hito ni toraruru (Cats have rats taken away by humans)

Neko hone otte hito ni toraruru

In January 1900, the Tokyo municipal government started to buy rats for five sen* each for exterminating them, since they transmitted plague. The above image depicts a man who robbed a cat of a rat to get money and then eating oden in a food stall.

*In 1897, a bowl of soba (buckwheat noodles) would cost one or two sen and tendon (a bowl of rice topped with tempura) would cost five sen .

Kitasato Shibasaburo

KITASATO Shibasaburo (1853-1931) was a Japanese bacteriologist who made great progress in the field of plague research. He went to Germany to study bacteriology under Robert Koch. After becoming famous with his research on tetanus and diphtheria, he performed a great service to medical science and public hygiene in modern Japan with his study of the plague, cholera, rabies and dysentery.

Kokusibyo chosa no hakenin (Kitasato, Aoyama) (Sending researchers to investigate the black death: Mr. Kitasato and Mr. Aoyama), from Asahi Shimbun, May 31, 1894, morning edition, p.1. [YB-2]

Kitasato and AOYAMA Tanemichi, a professor at the Imperial University medical college, were sent to plagueinfested Hong Kong in 1894. Kitasato used his energy to discover a plague pathogen and Aoyama analyzed infection routes and conditions of patients despite contracting plague himself.
This newspaper article announces that one assistant engineer of the Sanitary Affairs Bureau of Home Ministry and MIYAMOTO Shuku, an assistant in the attached hospital of the Tokyo Imperial University medical college, would be sent with them.
The NDL Digital Collections provides the official trip records by Kitasato and Aoyama. Part of them are as follows:

Cholera, Tuberculosis

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