Handgun Control in Medieval Japan

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a nice exhibit of Japanese arms and armor. Toward the end of the exhibit hung two very elegant matchlock guns dating to the Edo period (the 17th century). A small accompanying sign stated that firearms had been introduced into Japan in 1593 when a Portuguese vessel wrecked during a storm. This detail came from the Teppo ki, or Firearms Record of 1606.

Decoration on the stock of a Teppo, Japanese matchlock gun at the Higgins Armory.

Decoration on the stock of a Teppo, Japanese matchlock gun at the Higgins Armory.

As a researcher into the early history of firearms, I was startled. If firearms developed, along with gunpowder, in China early enough to migrate to England by the 14th century, how could they not have reached Japan before the 1593? The answer is, naturally, more complicated than that.

The entire Wikipedia section on this period in Japanese firearms is:

“Due to its proximity with China, Japan had long been familiar with gunpowder. Firearms seem to have first appeared in Japan around 1270, as primitive metal tubes invented in China and called teppō (鉄砲 lit. “iron cannon”) seem to have been introduced in Japan as well.[1]

These weapons were very basic, as they had no trigger or sights, and could not bear comparison with the more advanced European weapons which were introduced in Japan more than 250 years later.[1]“
footnote 1 refers to the text: Perrin, Noel (1979). Giving up the Gun, Japan’s reversion to the Sword, 1543–1879. Boston: David R. Godine. ISBN 0-87923-773-2

Implying that the guns were simply not good enough to bother with. Given that the Japanese were also known for archery, it’s probably true that these early guns couldn’t compete with a competent archer. However, that was true in Europe as well, and especially in England, home of the longbow. It would be centuries before guns became accurate enough to rival the bow and arrow as a killing device. However, those early guns had other uses. Their explosive power and potential often frightened the knights and foot soldiers who first encountered them, and there are medieval stories of troops who left the field when the guns were fired, not because they were hurt, but because of the “shock and awe” effect of the noise, smoke and flash, which were often compared with the presence of Hell.

For a consideration of the period after the Portuguese introduction of firearms (dated to 1543, according to most sources) check out this blog about Guns in Medieval Japan. (despite the title of this entry, he’s talking about the 16th century onward, what historians generally term the Early Modern period) This blogger makes some of the same observations I might, referring to my own period, including the fact that guns, like bows, were a weapon that could be used effectively by a peasant. And, in particular, that they could be used by that peasant to take down a knight–a Samurai, in the Japanese context.

Distance weapons like this constituted a threat to the landed gentry, not merely to their person (they are a threat to everyone in that regard) but rather to their status. The feudal system relied upon certain tenets, one of which is that an armed elite in power over others was a necessity. These people controlled the land, and absorbed much of the income from that land, theoretically in exchange for the protection they offered. So the warrior class became a hierarchy of wealth and status, codifying their prestige into laws and attitudes designed to defend it, with distance weapons being regarded as low-status, cowardly devices that removed the honor from combat.

Does this have implications for the present day, with our shared concerns over personal safety leading to conflicting agendas? The blogger above, Ryo Chijiwa, along with the author of the book cited on Wikipedia both point out that the strict gun control exercised by the Tokugawa Shogunate (which began in the 17th century) coincided with 250 years of peace. It’s hard to say which came first: did the lack of guns result in a peaceful society, or did the peaceful society reject guns because they were deemed unnecessary except in time of war?

It’s interesting to consider what the historical perspective can show us about our contemporary woes. What are your thoughts?

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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5 Responses to Handgun Control in Medieval Japan

  1. thrashmad says:

    I think that museum sign had a small typo; guns arrived in 1543 as Wikipedia states.

    On guns in Japan, I have to point out that “Giving up the Gun” doesn’t seem to be a good source on the subject. The author of the book, Noel Perrin, states that the Tokugawa Shogunate almost eliminated guns from Japan because the samurai disliked them and where attached to their swords. This view is not supported by people who studied Japanese history. There was a thread on forum where two reviews of it where posted: http://forums.samurai-archives.com/viewtopic.php?p=67043&sid=83308c47385e95da73025bb94766becb
    The historians who wrote the reviews ascribe the decline of guns as a consequence of the peace. I tend to agree with them, no real wars to speak of led to smaller demand for guns and swords where in addition to being status symbols more useful for self-defence and small-scale fighting then the guns of the time.

    I also read an interesting article called “The Social Life of Firearms in Tokugawa Japan”. It outlines the history of guns among the peasants during the Edo period. Peasants were allowed to own guns for hunting and scaring away animals to protect their crops. They had to have licence for the guns, but there were some unlicensed guns. During the latter part of the Edo period they could also be allowed to own guns for protection against “bad guys”, wandering outsiders, some of them samurai. Up until that point guns doesn’t seem to have been viewed as weapons. The author of the article could find no record of it being used in fights to hurt anyone. In one fight between some bad guys and some villagers a gun was fired, but only as a distress signal!
    To me, this point towards that cultural factors and the social structure are most important factors when it comes to limit violence.

    • Thanks for sharing some new and useful information.

      RE: the sign. In doing some follow-up research, I found several different dates given, but mostly around that time, mid- to late- 1500′s. I’m fascinated by the idea that they weren’t weapons, per se, but warning devices. It meshes nicely with some of the other research on the early use of guns. In part because it took a long time for guns to become accurate and reliable enough to be taken seriously, they were often adopted for their visual and auditory effects. I’ll have to track down the article you mentioned.

  2. thrashmad says:

    Glad to be of help :).
    Now that you mention dates, I remember seeing both 1542 and 1543 as guns (the more advanced version that is) arriving with the Portuguese to the island of Tanegashima. Could be an error in converting calendars, I’m not sure which one is correct, but I think it’s 1543.
    I should clarify that the guns of the peasants had during the Edo period were weapons, they was used to hunt animals after all, so they knew guns could kill. They just seem to not be viewed as something to attack humans with.
    I think that one factor that sometimes is overlooked when it comes to early guns is the effectiveness they had against armour. Increasingly protective armour had made it harder for bows and crossbows to hurt enemies. Guns had a lot of energy that could penetrate armour. This was probably an important reason they got adopted along with the psychological effect they had.

  3. Gary says:

    my favority scene in Braveheart is when the English are about to defeat the Scots and one of the commanders ask the King if its time to send in the archers ( He replies , No arrows cost money. send in the Irish ). I believe it was the same in the Muromachi Jidai ; guns used by Ashigaru were a more efficient and economic method of destruction. the cost of a trained Samurai with armor and weapons who once killed could not be easily replaced ( or fed and housed when not fighting ) is now replaced by ashigaru or foot soldiers who could be trained to use a gun or spear in massed formations effectively at a fraction of the cost and who then went back to agricultural work as Goshi or low ranking samurai who were more farmers than samurai when the fighting was over. The more Goshi a daimyo could put in the field the more likely they were to win , they were not a drain on his finances when not fighting , and if killed easily replaced. Guns could be fired 1000′s of times while a sword could break easily when used. The Tokugawa goverment subsidized the mfg of guns from the late 1600′s on to Meiji so that they could guarantee they would not lose the technology to produce guns. The Daimyo had to order guns that would be never be used . Extra large bore guns were produced as symbols of power to be displayed during the trips to and from Edo by Daimyo. I believe the same thing will happen now with drones , its cheaper to

    • Good stuff! Thanks for taking the time to comment–looks like you got cut off at the end, so feel free to add more.
      I am fascinated by the idea that they continued to manufacture guns they would not use because the didn’t want to lose the knowledge.

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