Japanese gun control part II
January 28, 2013 in Guns
IV. A History of Civilian Disarmament
The late historian Richard Hofstadter rejected the idea that America’s violent past might explain its present cultural attachment to the gun. He pointed out that Japan also had a violent past, but has managed to tame its passions and evolve to a more pacific, weapon-free state. But the Japanese past, while violent, laid no cultural foundation for a gun culture. Weapons always were, and remain today, the mark of the rulers, not the ruled.
A. Masters of Gun Manufacture
Guns arrived in Japan along with the first trading ships from Portugal in 1542 or 1543. Confident of the superiority of Japanese civilisation, the Japanese dubbed the Western visitors namban, ‘Southern barbarians’. The Portuguese had landed on Tanegashima Island, outside Kyushu. One day the Portuguese trader Mendez Pinto took Totitaka, Lord of Tanegashima for a walk; the trader shot a duck. The Lord of Tanegashima made immediate arrangements to take shooting lessons, and within a month he bought both Portuguese guns, or Tanegashima as the Japanese soon called them.
The Tanegashima caught on quickly among Japan’s feuding warlords. The novelty of the guns was the main reason that the Portuguese were treated well. Lord Oda Nobunaga noted that ‘guns have become all the rage…but I intend to make the spear the weapon to rely on in battle’. Nobunaga was worried about how long–15 minutes–it took to prepare a gun shot, and how weak the projectile was. The Portuguese guns, among the best of their era, were matchlocks (ignited by a match), and Japan’s rainy weather made the gun’s ignition system unreliable.
Despite some initial problems, the Japanese rapidly improved firearms technology. They invented a device to make matchlocks fire in the rain (the Europeans never figured out how to do this), refined the matchlock trigger and spring, developed a serial firing technique, and increased the matchlock’s calibre. They also dispensed with pre-battle introductions. Superior quality guns were produced; during the 1904 Russo-Japanese war, 16th century matchlocks were converted to modern bolt-action and performed admirably.
By 1560, only 17 years after being introduced in Japan, firearms were being used effectively in large battles. That year, a bullet killed a general wearing full armour. In 1567, Lord Takeda Harunobu declared, ‘Hereafter, guns will be the most important arms’. He was right. Less than three decades after Japan saw its first gun, there were more guns in Japan than any other nation on the planet. Several Japanese feudal lords had more guns than the whole British army.(p.32)
It was Lord Oda Nobunaga, an early critic of the Portuguese matchlocks, whose army truly mastered the new firearms technology. At Nagashino in 1575, 3,000 of Nobunaga’s conscript peasants with muskets hid behind wooden posts and devastated the enemy’s cavalry charge. There was no honour to such fighting, but it worked. Feudal wars between armies of samurai knights had ravaged Japan for centuries. Nobunaga and his peasant army, equipped with matchlocks, conquered most of Japan, and helped bring the feudal wars to an end.
Guns dramatically changed the nature of war. In earlier times, after the introductions, fighters would pair off, to go at each other in single combat–a method of fighting apt to let individual heroism shine. Armoured, highly trained samurai had the advantage. But with guns, the unskilled could be deployed en masse, and could destroy the armoured knights with ease. Understandably, the noble bushi class thought firearms undignified. Even Lord Nobunaga personally refused to use guns and included samurai warriors in his armies. The warriors who became heroes were still those who used swords or spears.
B. The Sword Hunt
Yet as Japan grew more pre-eminent in firearms manufacture and warfare, she moved closer to the day when firearms would disappear from society. The engineer of Japan’s greatest armed victories, and of the abolition of guns in Japan, would be a peasant named Hidéyoshi. Starting out as a groom for Lord Nobunaga, Hidéyoshi rose through the ranks to take control of Nobunaga’s army after Nobunaga died. A brilliant strategist, Hidéyoshi finished the job that Nobunaga began, and re-unified Japan’s feudal states under a strong central government.
Having conquered the Japanese, Hidéyoshi meant to keep them under control. On 29 August 1588, Hidéyoshi announced ‘the Sword Hunt’ (taiko no katanagari) and banned possession of swords and firearms by the non-noble classes. He decreed:
The people in the various provinces are strictly forbidden to have in their possession any swords, short swords, bows, spears, firearms or other arms. The possession of unnecessary implements makes difficult the collection of taxes and tends to foment uprisings… Therefore the heads of provinces, official agents and deputies are ordered to collect all the weapons mentioned above and turn them over to the Government.(emphasis added)
Although the intent of Hidéyoshi’s decree was plain, the Sword Hunt was presented to the masses under the pretext that all the swords would be melted down to supply nails and bolts for a temple containing a huge statue of the Buddha. The statue would have been twice the size of the Statue of Liberty. The Western missionaries’ Jesuit Annual Letter reported that Hidéyoshi ‘is depriving the people of their arms under the pretext of devotion to religion’. (p.33)Once the swords and guns were collected, Hidéyoshi had them melted into a statue of himself.
The historian Stephen Turnbull writes:
Hidéyoshi’s resources were such that the edict was carried out to the letter. The growing social mobility of peasants was thus flung suddenly into reverse. The ikki, the warrior-monks, became figures of the past…Hidéyoshi had deprived the peasants of their weapons. Iéyasu [the next ruler] now began to deprive them of their self respect. If a peasant offended a samurai he might be cut down on the spot by the samurai’s sword.
The inferior status of the peasantry having been affirmed by civil disarmament, the Samurai enjoyed kiri-sute gomen, permission to kill and depart. Any disrespectful member of the lower class could be executed by a Samurai’s sword.
Hidéyoshi forbade peasants to leave their land without their superior’s permission and required that warriors, peasants, and merchants all remain in their current post. After Hidéyoshi died, Iéyasu founded the Tokugawa Shogunate, which would rule Japan for the next two-and-a-half centuries. Peasants were assigned to a ‘five-man group,’ headed by landholders who were responsible for the group’s behaviour. The groups arranged marriages, resolved disputes, maintained religious orthodoxy, and enforced the rules against peasants possessing firearms or swords. The weapons laws clarified and stabilised class distinctions. Samurai had swords; the peasants did not.
The total abolition of firearms never took place by a formal decree. Hidéyoshi had taken the first step, by disarming the peasants. In 1607, the Tokugawa Shogunate took the second step by dictating that all gun and powder production take place in Nagahama. Permission from the central Government was required to engage in the business. In theory, the gunsmiths could fill any orders they got, as long as they got permission from the Teppo Bugyo (commissioner of guns). In practice, almost no orders except those by the Government were permitted.
The gunsmiths, starving for lack of business, slipped out of Nagahama. Some went to work for Lord Tokitaka’s heirs on Tanegashima Island, where guns had first arrived in Japan. In 1609, the Government ordered the gunsmiths back to Nagahama. This time, they would receive an annual pension, regardless of whether they produced guns, as long as they stayed put and let the Government keep an eye on them.
The pensions were low, and the work ethic was still strong. Many gunsmiths turned to sword production. The Government compensated the other smiths by paying increasingly high prices for small gun orders. By 1625, the government monopoly was secure. There were four (p.34)master gunsmith families, and forty families of ordinary gunsmiths under them. The Government ordered 387 matchlocks a year, and cut orders even further in 1706. Eventually, the number of gunsmiths dwindled to 15 families, who supported themselves with government repair orders.
The historian Noel Perrin offers five reasons why Japan was able to renounce the gun while Europe was not, despite the fierce resistance to guns by the European aristocracy. First, the Samurai warrior nobility, who hated guns, amounted to 6-10 per cent of the population, unlike in Europe, where the noble class never exceeded 1 per cent. The nobility simply counted for more in Japan. Second, Japan was so hard to invade, and the Japanese were such formidable fighters, that swords and bows sufficed for national defense. Invasions were unlikely in any case. One hundred miles separate Japan from Korea; 500 divide Japan and China. Third, writes Perrin, swords were what the Japanese truly valued. Guns depreciated the importance of swords, so a policy of protecting swords by eliminating guns was bound to be popular, at least with the classes who carried swords. Hailed as ‘the soul of the samurai’, the sword was the physical embodiment of aristocratic honour and of the soul itself. When gun manufacture was still legal, and the Government decided to honour the four leading gunsmiths, it gave them swords. The cult of the sword persisted into the Second World War, when Japanese officers lugged traditional, cumbersome swords into Southeast Asian jungles. Even today, the sword is a common source of Japanese metaphor. Self-indulgent behaviour is called ‘the rust of my body’, identifying one’s body with a sword. The fourth reason Perrin cites for the success in elimination of guns was a general reaction against outside influences, particularly Christianity. Although the firearms made in Japan were the world’s best, they remained a symbol of Western technology. Finally, writes Perrin, in a society where aesthetics were prized, swords were valued because they were graceful to use in combat.
The abolition of firearms and abandonment of military aggression were just one element of the sakoku policy of isolation from the world and exaltation of ‘Japaneseness’. The policy worked. Edwin O Reischauer, America’s leading historian of Japan, writes: ‘The brawling, bellicose Japanese people of the sixteenth century gradually were transformed into an extremely orderly, even docile people…Nowhere in the world was proper decorum more rigorously observed by all classes, and nowhere else was physical violence less in evidence in ordinary life’. When Commodore Perry and his ‘Black Ships’ arrived in 1853, Japan was backwards only in technology. An officer in Commodore Perry’s fleet reported, ‘These people seemed scarcely to know the use of firearms’. Japan had built a more harmonious, peaceful society than any Western nation has before or since.
True, the Japanese paid a price for their order. Freedom was an alien concept. Interclass, social, and geographic mobility were extinguished. Indeed, as Turnbull points out, (p.35)Hidéyoshi’s hunt for swords and firearms marked the end of social freedom in Japan. The abolition of firearms probably would not have succeeded if Japan had a free economy or a free political system. If the Japanese sacrificed a certain degree of economic and personal freedom, they also spared themselves the bloody conflicts that engulfed the Western world.
C. The Rush to Militarism
Though Japan had lived happily without guns, militarism, violence, or foreign influence, Commodore Perry’s arrival shook the nation deeply. The Japanese realised that, however harmonious their society, they were centuries behind the West technologically, and, like China, in imminent danger of colonisation. The Government tried to strengthen itself by adopting Western military technology and sending missions abroad to learn about the West.
Under Hidéyoshi, the peasant class had lost its political power, and with it the privilege of owning arms. When the aristocracy lost its own political power during the Meiji period, it too lost its right to bear arms. In 1876, the Government forbade the samurai to wear their two swords. The next year, 40,000 discontented conservative samurai rose up in the Satsuma Rebellion led by the Shimpuren (‘God-wind League’). They rejected the chance to use imported muskets, fought with swords instead, and were crushed by the conscript peasant army using guns.
During the early 20th century, the gun controls were slightly relaxed. Tokyo and other major ports were allowed to have five gun shops each, other prefectures, three. Revolver sales were allowed with a police permit, and registration of every transaction were required. Nevertheless, the ownership of revolvers was ‘practically nil’ according to one American observer.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the military came increasingly to control civilian life. Sonoda explains: ‘The army and the navy were vast organizations with a monopoly on physical violence. There was no force in Japan that could offer any resistance’. The 1930s degenerated into a horrible period of government by assassination, as military factions attempted to destroy each other, and as militarists murdered opponents of war. Despite the strict gun laws, the frequency of assassinations far exceeded anything seen in Europe or North America this century. Even today, assassinations still occur.
Under Hidéyoshi and the Tokugawa Shogunate, strict gun control succeeded in Japan because it was consistent with the cultural needs of Japanese society. Today, the gun control policy continues to succeed because it continues to match the basic character of Japanese society.(p.36)