September 13, 2010
Did heavy makeup bring down the shogunate?
It's possible. Remains of children of samurai show sky-high levels of lead in their bones, most likely from their mothers, who adorned their faces with white, lead-based powder. Idiocy was apparently epidemic among the Edo-era shogunate, with lead levels far above those associated with intellectual impairment. This may have had political consequences, according to an an MSNBC report, which cites the research of Tamiji Nakashima, an anatomist at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu:
Nakashima and his team think a ruling class addled by lead poisoning may have contributed to political instability, and ultimately to the collapse of the seven-century-old shogun system in 1867, when power shifted cataclysmically from the shogun to the emperor, and life in Japan changed for good.
Blood lead levels were generally low before the Industrial Revolution, and it was likewise so for people living during the Edo period (1603-1867)—except for the children of samurai—making it more than plausible that it was the heavy makeup that did them in, at least in part. And the shogunate has some august predecessors. From the MSNBC report:
It wouldn't be the first time lead poisoning rang in the end of an era. Others have suggested that "plumbism" among the Roman elite — whose fancy food and wine was laced with lead leached from cooking equipment—contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.