A book by historical demography specialist Akira Hayami contains this excerpt from a newspaper article published in 1919: "The flu is the inevitable topic of conversation at public bathhouses and barbershops. A bathhouse patron took his leave in haste, saying he was feeling a chill after the bath. A man bolted out of a barbershop, turning up the collar of his coat."

Japan was in the grip of a global influenza pandemic, commonly known as the Spanish Flu, that began raging in 1918.

About 40 percent of the Japanese population came down with it, including the prime minister, Takashi Hara (1856-1921). According to an entry in Hara's diary, his fever broke in less than a week. But he still skipped a Privy Council meeting, apparently to ensure he didn't pass on the virus to others.

This winter, the number of flu patients in Japan is rising rapidly. The latest tally for the past week is said to be the highest since this method of keeping track was adopted in 1999.

Indeed, rarely have I heard so much talk about the flu in any past year. On the streets and in the trains, I see a great many people wearing face masks.

Of the two types of this year's flu--A and B--the latter is not necessarily accompanied by a high fever. Because type-B patients don't initially realize they have it, it is sometimes called "kakure influenza" (hidden flu).

Perhaps this winter's record cold wave has contributed to the pandemic, which I understand is also raging in the United States and France.

"Do not go near anyone who is coughing" and "Cover your nose and mouth--for your own sake and for everyone else's sake" are among the slogans advocated by what was then the Ministry of Internal Affairs at the height of the Spanish Flu.

For all the recent advances in medicine, these nearly century-old tips are still perfectly appropriate, which must mean that basic flu prevention measures haven't really changed.

If we want to avoid getting sick, washing our hands and getting plenty of sleep are obvious things to do.

But if we come down with the bug, the only recourse is to stay in bed. And we must never even entertain the thought that our absence will ruin a business meeting or a project in progress.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 27

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.