Firearms in Japan

By the start of the 13th century Japan was already on a descending path from aristocratic-emperor rule to fragmented provincialism under warlord clans, to protracted civil war and anarchy. The Mongols twice tried to invade Japan but were repulsed at Hakata Bay in 1274 and 1281. The Kamakura shogunate ended in violence in 1333. The Ashikaga shogunate (1333–1603) was born into chaos and bloody strife as rival military houses backed rival imperial lines, and as turmoil in China spilled over into destabilization and civil war in Japan. This ‘‘War Between the Courts’’ lasted from 1336 to 1392. As central power collapsed Japan’s coasts and outer islands were preyed upon by wakō(pirates). In the mid-15th century more decades of civil war climaxed in a shogunal succession dispute, leading to the Ōnin War (1467–1477). Thus began a period known as the Sengoku jidai or ‘‘Warring States,’’ during which power shifted to the ‘‘Sengoku daimyo,’’ or military houses of the regions, and Ashikaga shoguns ruled only on paper. Several emperors despaired and fled ruined Kyoto; others were assassinated. This era of so-called gekokujōsaw general anarchy, widespread arson (a favorite weapon of the ashigaru), a plague of ronin, and ubiquitous civil warfare marked by endless small battles. One defense against this anarchy was the growth of jōkamachi (‘‘castle towns’’). A better defense would have been unification and pacification, but before 1560 no one among the daimyo could provide this.

The arrival of firearms in Japan changed all warfare and politics. Samurai faced gunpowder weapons (small rockets) at Hakata Bay, but not guns. Korea acquired firearms from China around 1300 but kept the technology secret from the Japanese for over 200 years. Some primitive Chinese firing tubes were used during the Ōnin War, but did not catch on. Japan acquired its first true guns not from China but from Europe, when several Portuguese merchants shipwrecked at Tanegashima. Portuguese records set the date as 1542; Japanese histories say 1543. What is important is that they brought with them two matchlock arquebuses. These merchants, the first Europeans to visit Japan, were followed by Jesuits, experts in forging guns and peddling Catholicism. Spanish traders arrived in 1581 with more guns and cannon, by which time some Japanese daimyo were manufacturing their own firearms and were already using them to overwhelm more traditional neighbors (in battle, perhaps as early as 1549). This is when large infantry formations first appeared in daimyo armies, partly in response to the breakdown of samurai loyalty during Sengoku, but also due to the introduction of peasant levies armed with arquebuses.

The last half of the 16th century saw the unification of Japan by three great warlords, each effectively using guns in combination with older arms to wage and win the Unification Wars. The first was Oda Nobunaga, who put an end to the Ashikaga shogunate and the old daimyo order. He conquered the most advanced and heavily populated third of Japan, crushing daimyo and Buddhist opposition by 1582. The second unifier was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who rose from modest origins to rule much of Japan from behind the imperial throne. Hideyoshi twice sent massive armies into Korea. He planned this as the start of an empire to include Indochina, Siam, the Philippines, and China, but was not able to conquer even Korea. In 1587 he ordered Christian missionaries to leave Japan. Ten years later he oversaw mass executions of Japanese Christians, whom he feared as a fifth column and as adherents of a subversive cult. In 1600, Dutch traders arrived and Western trade interests and influence looked set to make headway. The last of the unifiers, Tokugawa Ieyasu, triumphed at Sekigahara in 1600 and became shogun in 1603. His successors, the Tokugawa shoguns, chose a path of isolation from the West trod by Japan for 250 years. Having overcome endless civil wars and the arrival of strange and perhaps threatening foreigners, the Tokugawa steadfastly resisted externally induced change. This policy was undertaken at a time when China was overrun by the Manchus and penetrated by Europeans, India was conquered by the Mughals, and Europe itself was wracked by sectarian wars. However, the price of the Tokugawa ‘‘great peace’’ was suppression of creative social forces and a self-imposed technological and military inferiority to the West. The Tokugawa shoguns gave Japan political stability and domestic peace, albeit harshly enforced, along with seclusion from Western and Christian influence. Isolation was not as extreme toward Korea and China, however. Ieyasu restored relations with Korea in 1609 and during the Tokugawa shogunate Korea sent twelve major missions (tsūshinshi) to Japan. Westerners, on the other hand, met harassment and were forbidden to take up permanent residence. Thus English traders who arrived in 1612 left in frustration in 1623, while the French established no trade links with Japan in this period.

After 1613, Buddhism—its martial monks now disarmed and so mostly harmless—was reestablished as the state religion, while ‘‘Kirishitan’’ (Japanese Christians) were sharply persecuted. In 1614 all Catholic clergy were expelled. In 1618 other Christian missionaries were killed or forced to leave. A ferocious persecution of Christianity followed, including a series of ‘‘seclusion decrees’’ passed from 1633 to 1641. These aimed at tightening control over the daimyo, among whom a handful were ‘‘Kirishitan,’’ and ending all Christian subversion of Japan’s putatively homogenous religious and social order. Under pressure from enforcement of anti-Christian edicts by the Tokugawa inquisition, the Kirishitan Shumon Aratame Yaku, in 1637–1638 the Kirishitan of Shimabara rebelled. Mostly converted peasants supported by a few samurai, and with some aid from Europeans in the area, they were brutally crushed: some 35,000 were butchered in their last stronghold at Hara Castle. With the rebellion ended, survivors went underground as Kakure Kirishitan (‘‘Hidden Christians’’). Western trade also fell away: England’s East India Company left in 1623, the Spanish were expelled in 1624, and the Portuguese were thrown out in 1639. That left only the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compaagnie (VOC), and it was confined to the single entrepôt of Deshima. Chinese merchants were more welcome, but they too were controlled in their movements and trade. Additional ‘‘seclusion decrees’’ by Shogun Tokugawa Iyemitsu forbade any Japanese from leaving the home islands and enforced execution of all who returned from abroad, even shipwreck survivors. Shipbuilders were ordered not to construct vessels capable of ocean travel, trade with Europe was limited to regulated and authorized goods through Deshima, and all Korean and Chinese junks were directed to the confined port of Nagasaki. Korea retaliated by limiting Japanese traders to Pusan while China banned official trade with Japan, though an extensive private trade (smuggling) flourished that was permitted by the shoguns as a valued source of intelligence on the wider world.

There has been a fierce argument among military historians as to whether or not the Japanese ‘‘gave up the gun’’ during the long Tokugawa shogunate. At one level, they clearly did not: firearms were still produced in Japan and gun militia were maintained under strict shogunate and bakufu control. Yet, prohibitions on anyone other than samurai owning firearms (but also any other deadly weapon, including bows and swords) were enforced by occasional gun and ‘‘sword hunts’’ in the spirit of Hideyoshi’s 1588 decree banning ownership of military weapons by commoners. The main argument in favor of the ‘‘Japan gave up the gun’’ thesis is that after the isolated rebellion of 1637–1638 it saw no more battles for 200 years, not until 1837. But it would be more accurate to say that Japan gave up civil war rather than guns. Once Japanese made war again in the second half of the 19th century they took guns out of storage, bought modern models from the West, and took to battle again with real gusto.

Suggested Reading: W. G. Beasley, The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan (2000); J. Hall et al., eds., Japan before Tokugawa (1981); George Sansom, A History of Japan, 1334–1615 (1961); R. Toby, State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan (1984); Conrad Totman, Early Modern Japan (1993).


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