RAILWAYS PROMOTE GROWTH BUT ALSO SPREAD DISEASE: Evidence from Japan’s industrialisation

Skip to Navigation

Skip to Search

30 Mar 2016

Full Text:

New research highlights the potential downside of improved economic infrastructure in its threat to public health. In a study to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2016 annual conference in Cambridge, Dr John Tang shows that the expansion of Japan’s railway network in the last three decades of the nineteenth century led to a significant rise in mortality through the spread of communicable diseases.

His results indicate that disease mortality due to the extension of Japan’s railways accounts for approximately 5% of total deaths per year between 1886 and 1893. More striking is that annual death rates in areas with railways increased by 75% in years following rail access compared with years before access – and that the majority of these were from communicable diseases that could take advantage of increased mobility due to the railroad.

This connection between disease spread and labour movement is not surprising – and it remains significant today. The most recent disease epidemic in the news is the Zika virus, transmitted via mosquito bites and rapidly spreading throughout the Americas.

Are there negative consequences to economic growth and industrialisation? Few public officials and economists would think so, but economic development leads to dramatic social changes too, sometimes with unintended impacts such as in public health.

Improving infrastructure and easing the mobility of goods and people within and between countries has dramatic effects on an economy, and this was true for Japan in the late nineteenth century during its initial period of industrialisation. The country's impressive gains in per capita income, capital investment and trade volumes are well-documented, but attending these changes was a surprising increase in overall mortality rates that persisted past the turn of the century.

This research on Japanese industrialisation finds a surprising explanation for why these effects – economic growth and increased mortality – are twinned, and it lies in the spread of the railroad. Introduced in the 1870s, railways expanded throughout the country over the next three decades to create a national network and integrated previously isolated parts of the country to the major cities of Tokyo and Osaka, and thence to the rest of the world.

What is unusual about this study is that the author can identify transport access as a causal mechanism for transmission given relatively unsophisticated medical treatments at the time and a lack of investment in public health measures. He compares mortality data for areas in the years before they gain rail access to the years immediately after, and uses areas that do not have railways for the same years as a control group.

He also accounts for the level of economic development, urbanisation and medical services to ensure those effects do not confound the results. The estimates are robust to various specifications of the model, and further refined by differentiating between diseases that can be carried by individuals (and thus trains) like cholera, tuberculosis, and typhoid versus those that cannot (such as external injuries and cancer).

The results even indicate that mortality rates are disproportionately higher for less populated areas once they are connected by rail, which is consistent with research about isolated communities lacking disease resistance and health infrastructure to combat increased disease exposure.

This research highlights one of the potentially adverse impacts of industrialisation and market integration, complementing existing scholarship on the economic benefits from improved infrastructure and capital investment. Few would dispute the desirability of improved access to jobs and lower prices from world markets, but governments should anticipate short-run consequences as well to offset the social costs to growth.


Tang, J., ‘The Engine and the Reaper: Industrialization and Mortality in Early Modern Japan’, Centre for Economic History Discussion Paper 2016-01, Canberra: Australian National University.


Dr. John Tang

Australian National University


+1 510 480 8482 (Mobile)


Add This Social Media Links