12/4/12 - japan repudiates guns

In today's selection -- alone among countries that acquired and mastered guns, Japan effectively banned and repudiated these weapons, while simultaneously cutting itself off from the outside world. This meant that Japan was defenseless when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with gunships in 1853, a culturally shocking moment, which vaulted Japan into a civil war caused, in part, by conflict between those who wanted Japan to continue to hold to its traditions -- and those who wanted to rapidly modernize Japan and catch up with the rest of the industrializing world:

"Warfare ensured that once states had acquired guns, they could not give them up. To this rule, there is one glaring exception: Japan. The Japanese first encountered firearms when Portuguese adventurers arrived in 1453 with two matchlocks, guns in which the powder was ignited with a match. Japanese blacksmiths quickly learned to produce such weapons in large quantities. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are known as the Age of the Country at War, when powerful lords bat­tled for control of the country. At the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, an army of 38,000 men, of whom 10,000 carried guns, defeated an army of sword-wielding samurai (or Japanese knights). Japan soon had more guns than any European country.

"Warfare and the proliferation of guns had serious social conse­quences, however. The battles showed that even a poorly trained peas­ant with a gun could kill a samurai, no matter how courageous, well trained, or expensively armored he might be. This threatened the posi­tion of the warrior class, who numbered half a million and were jealous of their status and their privileges, such as the right to carry swords.

"In the early seventeenth century, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his descen­dants defeated their rivals and established a military dictatorship. In the 1630s, they began restricting the manufacture and sale of firearms. Only in two towns could gunmakers practice their trade. Civilians were for­bidden to buy guns. Gradually, the government cut back its orders of fire­arms; by 1673, it was buying 53 large matchlocks or 334 small ones on alternate years. It also expelled all foreigners and forbade Japanese peo­ple from traveling abroad under penalty of death. For the next two cen­turies, no foreign power threatened Japan. The country was practically cut off from contact with the outside world and saw no reason to keep up with technological changes occurring elsewhere. Guns were forgotten until 1853, when American warships arrived in Tokyo Bay and, by firing their cannon, awoke Japan to the power of modern technology.


Daniel R. Headrick


Technology: A World History


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2009 by Oxford University Press, Inc.


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