Great Tenmei famine

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The Great Tenmei famine (天明の大飢饉, Tenmei no daikikin) was a famine which affected Japan during the Edo period. It is considered to have begun in 1782, and lasted until 1788. It was named after the Tenmei era (1781–1789), during the reign of Emperor Kōkaku. The ruling shoguns during the famine were Tokugawa Ieharu and Tokugawa Ienari. The famine was the deadliest one during the early modern period in Japan.

In Tōhoku, which is the north-eastern region of Honshū, starting in the 1770s there was a sharp decline in crop yield due to poor and cold weather, so food stocks in rural areas were exhausted. The situation was exacerbated by natural disasters: Mount Iwaki erupted on April 13, 1783 (March 12, Tenmei 3 in the Lunisolar calendar), as did Mount Asama on July 6 (August 3 in the Lunisolar calendar), so volcanic ash was sent down into the atmosphere of Japan. Aside from the direct damage caused by the eruptions, this led to a fall in solar radiation, resulting in cold weather that catastrophically damaged crops. The massive Icelandic Laki eruption of 1783 which disrupted weather patterns all over the Northern Hemisphere undoubtedly worsened matters as well.

Another cause of the famine was the government's economic policies. During this period, a mercantilist policy was implemented by Tanuma Okitsugu, a minister of the Tokugawa shogunate cabinet. This was intended to commercialise agriculture and thus increase tax income, which was paid in rice. The policy caused economic difficulties for many Hans and led to excessive investment in rice production (which was vulnerable to cold weather) in order to pay the higher taxes. It also resulted in local emergency stores of food becoming depleted. The climatic, volcanic and economic factors combined to result in poor harvests and a lack of emergency stores, which led to skyrocketing rice prices, so serious famine expanded to a national scale as a result.

According to Nochi-mi-gusa, written by Genpaku Sugita, approximately twenty thousand people starved to death, mainly in rural areas of the Tōhoku region. However, many local authorities, afraid of being accused of economic mismanagement, did not report the full extent of the damage, so the actual death toll may have been far higher, perhaps even ten times Sugita's estimate. The outcome was particularly severe in Mutsu Province, where it was reported that over a hundred thousand people died.[1] Including people who fled the area, Hirosaki (Tsugaru) Han lost almost half of its population. The combined impact of famine and outbreaks of disease resulted in a population decline of more than 920,000 people across Japan between 1780 and 1786.[2]

Population history[edit]

The population of Japan in the Edo period[edit]

[3] [4]

  • 1774 (An'ei 3) 25 990 000
  • 1780 (An'ei 9) 26 010 000
  • 1786 (Tenmei 6) 25 090 000
  • 1792 (Kansei 4) 24 890 000
  • 1798 (Kansei 10) 25 470 000

Population in Tohoku[edit]

  • 1750 (Kan'en 3) 2 680 000
  • 1786 (Tenmei 6) 2 370 000
  • 1804 (Bunka 1) 2 470 000
  • 1828 (Bunsei 11) 2 630 000


  1. ^ "詳説日本史研究" 山川出版社, page 289.
  2. ^ 石井寛治 "日本経済史", University of Tokyo Press, page 77.
  3. ^ "近世日本人口の研究", 関山直太郎, 龍吟社, 1948.
  4. ^ "近世日本の人口構造", 関山直太郎, 吉川弘文館, 1958.

See also[edit]