Tenmei Famine

The Tenmei era saw the most devastating famine in early modern Japan, a nationwide disaster that took as many as 130,000 lives. Many farming villages were abandoned, and large areas became depopulated. Shogunate officials provided little assistance, and they aggravated the situation through corruption and incompetence. Popular uprisings forced the officials out of office, bringing not only greater repression but also needed reforms.

Summary of Event

The Tenmei Famine of 1786-1787, along with the Kyoho Famine of 1732 and the Tempo Famine of 1832 to 1837, were three major famines during the two and a half centuries of the Edo period. Though the Kyoho Famine of 1732 was of shorter duration, it affected close to one million people in forty-six feudal domains in Western Japan. The effects of the Kyoho Famine were mitigated, however, by active efforts by the shogunate and the regional feudal lords to provide food Disaster relief;Japan and financial assistance to people in distress, and loans to farm communities so that they could plant new crops. Active relief efforts like these were largely neglected by the shogunate during the Tenmei Famine. This neglect prolonged the intensity and severity of hardship and famine among the people, creating disorders that undermined the power and authority of the shogunate. According to modern historians, the Tenmei Famine was the greatest nationwide disaster to occur in early modern Japan. [kw]Tenmei Famine (1786-1787)
[kw]Famine, Tenmei (1786-1787)
Tenmei Famine
[g]Japan;1786-1787: Tenmei Famine[2670]
[c]Health and medicine;1786-1787: Tenmei Famine[2670]
[c]Agriculture;1786-1787: Tenmei Famine[2670]
[c]Economics;1786-1787: Tenmei Famine[2670]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1786-1787: Tenmei Famine[2670]
[c]Government and politics;1786-1787: Tenmei Famine[2670]
Heizo, Hasegawa
Sadanobu, Matsudaira
Okitsugu, Tanuma
Tokugawa Ieharu
Tokugawa Ienari

In 1782, persistent frost and rain led to an estimated 25 percent crop loss. Agriculture;Japan This was followed in 1783 by an even more disastrous crop loss of 75 percent. There had been heavy rains Natural disasters;Japan and floods in the middle of June, which washed out many crops. This was followed by a huge eruption of Mount Asama Mount Asama, Japan, eruption of in July, which killed more than twenty thousand people and produced great quantities of volcanic ash. The ash killed crops over a large area of central Honshu and blocked sunlight so that surviving crops were diminished.

In the spring of 1786, another extended spell of frost destroyed many crops in the Kanto and Tohoku regions of Honshu. More heavy rains followed, which not only ruined crops but also overwhelmed the beginnings of an ambitious Kanto drainage project planned by the shogun’s chief councillor, Tanuma Okitsugu, causing large-scale flooding. The widespread famine that followed was reported to have caused severe illness and starvation, leading to the death of as many as 130,000 people.

Many of the starving wandered from place to place in search of food, resulting in a general depletion of food supplies even in communities unaffected by crop failures. The general exodus of farmworkers also resulted in local labor shortages that hindered the planting of new crops, in turn extending and compounding the famine. Many farming villages were abandoned, and people tried to survive by gathering and eating wild vegetation. There were also reported cases of the eating of corpses.

In many locations, the authorities set up shelters, where food such as rice gruel was doled out to the hungry and homeless, but the shogunate provided little substantial financial assistance to help farmers plant new crops, even in the most desperately impoverished communities. Instead, the government under Tanuma tried to set up forced loan schemes, in which loan money would be levied from landholders and merchants and loan interest would be paid to the shogunate. Tanuma also tried to manipulate the rice market, ostensibly to keep prices down, but rice prices continued to rise as food grew scarcer. Having nowhere to turn, desperate people began to resort to violence to get food and shelter.

By late summer, 1786, the national situation had worsened to such an extent that Chief Councillor Tanuma was forced to resign, in August. Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu’s untimely death followed in September, and the next six months the government lacked clear control. Riots and uprisings had started to break out all over the country, creating a situation of nationwide chaos. By late spring, 1787, more than thirty major disorders had developed in twenty different locations around the country, including in the cities of Nara, Osaka, Hiroshima, Hakata, Nagasaki, and Edo. This seventh year of the Tenmei era was plagued by the greatest degree of civil strife ever to take place during the entire two and a half centuries of the Edo period.

In mid-April, 1787, fourteen-year-old Tokugawa Ienari began his fifty-year reign as shogun, taking advice from Matsudaira Sadanobu, a feudal lord whose policies of local government austerity and aid to people in distress had made the famine less of a disaster in his domain in northeastern Honshu. In May, Hasegawa Heizo, a shogunate adviser whose father had been in charge of national civil security before him, was given the job of suppressing the disorders. Hasegawa succeeded in this role, and he spent the remaining eight years of his life modernizing shogunate policing methods, which had been designed to prevent civil unrest by keeping displaced and unemployed people under supervision and control.

In the case of the subsequent Tempo Famine of 1832 to 1837, the shogunate and the domain lords adopted relief measures similar to those originally undertaken during the Kyoho Famine, but years of repeated crop failures exhausted relief resources, and rice hoarding in less-affected areas continuously inflated the price of rice. As in the Tenmei Famine, the resultant regional disorders developed into urban uprisings as well. The largest of these occurred in Osaka in 1837, led by the retired official and neo-Confucian scholar Oshio Heihachiro. Oshio and his followers lost their lives in this abortive effort, while Ienari, who had begun as shogun following the peak of the Tenmei Famine in 1787, retired from office following the Osaka uprising.


The Tenmei Famine, along with the Tempo Famine, contributed significantly to the depopulation of rural areas and to limited population growth in general because of the deaths of so many people from starvation and malnutrition.

Ienari’s successor Ieyoshi followed the example of his father’s work in 1787, and subsequently supported advisers who attempted to combine sweeping reforms with stricter policing of the people. As with Ienari, these reforms ended in failure because of the lack of sustained effort to carry them through, though authoritarian rule continued. Ieyoshi died soon after Commodore Matthew Galbraith Perry arrived in 1853 to secure a trade and commerce treaty between Japan and the United States, an event that disrupted Ieyoshi’s own reign quite as much as the Tenmei Famine and Tempo Famine had undermined the reigns of his two predecessors.

During the seven decades between the start of the Tenmei Famine in 1782 and Perry’s arrival in 1853, the military and civil power of the shogunate were progressively weakened by popular discontent aroused by corruption, aggravated by a total of more than ten years of major famine and disorder. Beginning in 1853, the weakened shogunate attempted to maintain its control by a series of grudging compromises with Japanese regional enclaves and encroaching Western power, but the final result was the fall of the last Tokugawa shogun in 1867.

Further Reading

  • Cuny, Frederick C. Famine, Conflict, and Response: A Basic Guide. Bloomfield, Conn.: Kumarian Press, 1999. A handbook on the nature of famine by a caseworker who devoted his life to its elimination.
  • Hall, John Whitney. Tanuma Okitsugu, 1719-1788: Forerunner of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955. A classic study of a controversial and frequently criticized statesman.
  • Screech, Timon. The Shogun’s Painted Culture: Fear and Creativity in the Japanese States, 1760-1829. London: Reaktion Books, 2000. A study of Japanese life and culture, with a focus on the influence of Matsudaira Sadanobu on Japanese society. Extensive bibliography.
  • Vlastos, Stephen. Peasant Protests and Uprisings in Tokugawa Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. This study focuses on records of social conditions among the peasants in Fukushima prefecture.
  • Walthall, Anne, ed. Peasant Uprisings in Japan: An Anthology of Peasant Histories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Study and translations of five Tokugawa era peasant narratives.
  • White, James W. Ikki: Social Conflict and Political Protest in Early Modern Japan. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995. Sociological study of cases of peasant rebellion in Tokugawa Japan, based on original sources.

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