Tenbun Famine


The Tenbun Famine was a large-scale famine occurring in Tenbun 9 (1540) across Japan.

In 1539, torrential rains and flooding, along with a plague of locusts, led to crop failures that caused widespread famine.  In the following spring, another period of heavy rains and flooding contributed to an epidemic that resulted in many deaths among the citizens.

Rumors circulated that the calamity was caused when, in the first month of 1540, the statue of Kūkai, or the Kōbō Daishi, at the Tō Temple in Kyōto was perspiring and this became manifest by means of the famine and epidemic.  According to the diary of a monk named Gonsuke at the Rishō sub-temple at the Daigo Temple in Fushimi in Kyōto, every day, as many as sixty corpses were discarded across the upper and lower parts of the capital.  The Seigan Temple facilitated almsgiving to the poor while the famine was the worst in 700 years leaving tens of millions dead in the countryside as well as in the metropolises.  Even if the numbers are an exaggeration, the account speaks to the severity of the crises on society.

Owing to the occurrence of the famine in the depths of the Sengoku period, neither the Imperial Court nor the Muromachi bakufu had the political or financial capacity to address the needs of the citizens in the course of the famine.

As a result, at the Imperial Court, transcriptions of Buddhist sutras were made while the Muromachi bakufu responded to the famine by issuing orders for segaki, or prayer services for the benefit of suffering spirits, to be held at the Kitano Shrine and the Tō Temple.

In 1541, after Takeda Nobutora was expelled from Kai Province to Suruga Province by his lineal heir, Takeda Harunobu (later known as Takeda Shingen), Harunobu and his retainers were the subject of dissatisfaction among the citizens of Kai who had suffered as a result of the famine in the prior year.