Episode 404 – The Hesperia Incident

This week, we’re taking a closer look at the unequal treaty system of the 1800s by exploring one of its crappier (!) consequences: a diplomatic incident over cholera quarantines and extraterritorial laws surrounding a small German freighter called the Hesperia.


Johnston, William. “Cholera and the Environment in Nineteenth-Century Japan.” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 30 (2019), 9-34.

Fuess, Harald. “Informal Imperialism and the 1879 Hesperia Incident: Containing Cholera and Challenging Extraterritoriality in Japan.” Japan Review 27 (2014), 103-140.


A nishiki-e print showing caskets piling up to the point that they can’t be effectively cremated anymore during the 1858 cholera outbreak. The precise death counts for pre-1870 outbreaks are not known, but evidence from the period suggests disturbingly high numbers.
Meiji era manuals like this one on how to treat cholera were the source of ideas like the quarantine regulations the Hesperia ran afoul of.
The cholera bacteria up close and personal.
A late Edo period nishiki-e print depicting cholera as a fearsome tiger. The text gives methods for ‘defeating the tiger’ including better ventilation and regular handwashing.
The German freighter Hesperia, not to be confused with the early 20th century British freighter of the exact same name (be original, guys!)


4 thoughts on “Episode 404 – The Hesperia Incident”

  1. Interesting appendage on the tiger in that print. I was aware of that design with the raccoon like tanuki creatures, I wasn’t aware of it on a tiger. Does it have a different meaning in this image?

    You mentioned that proper sanitation was important for preventing cholera. So, when did running water and flush toilets become a standard part of Japanese houses?

      1. This may have some explanations: https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-topics/g00854/

        First, they date the picture to 1886, not the Edo period. They also mention that the animal has the head and front paws of a tiger, the rear torso of a wolf and the testicles of a tanuki, suggesting a terrifying new monster. In fact, it seems the three guys in the rear got hit in the back of the head with the creature’s “endowment.” Also, the samurai are shooting at the creature with a bottle of plum vinegar suggesting it as a remedy for treating cholera.

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