Great Tenmei Famine

The Great Tenmei Famine was one of the worst famines of the Edo period, lasting from 1782 to 1787 or so in most parts of Japan, though beginning earlier or ending later in other parts. The famine is believed to have killed as many as one million people across the archipelago.[1] Combined with the 1783 eruption of Mt. Asama, the famine was seen as a bad omen indicating the immoral or unvirtuous nature of rule at that time; these attitudes are generally said to have contributed to the ousting of Tairô Tanuma Okitsugu from power.

The famine began in many areas in 1782. That year and the next, unseasonable cold and rain, combined with ash and other impacts from the eruption of Mt. Asama, devastated crops in many areas of the archipelago. Yonezawa han saw crop losses of nearly 50 percent; in 1786, the domain suffered another hit, with 35% crop losses. The price of rice rose in Yonezawa by 130% just between 1783 and 1784, and over the course of the five or so years of the famine, over 4,000 people either died or fled the domain. Yet, Yonezawa was one of the least heavily affected domains.[2] Hirosaki han, by contrast, was one of the hardest hit. Unseasonable cold, heavy rain, and flooding destroyed half the 1782 crop, and as much as 80% of the following year's harvest. Many peasants were reduced to eating horse, cat, and grass. Between 1783 and 1784 alone, the domain lost as many as 80,000 people to famine and disease, out of a total population of only 250,000. Death and flight combined created severe labor shortages, rice prices went through the roof, and the domain was forced to temporarily reduce retainer stipends to a mere four of rice per day. The labor shortage led to a considerable rise in wages which continued into the 1800s.[3]

In many areas, regular harvests finally returned in 1787, marking the end of the famine.


  1. Mark Ravina, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, Stanford University Press (1999), 128.
  2. Ravina, 96-97.
  3. Ravina, 128-129.