Giving Up The Gun

In response to my post on The Last Samurai, one reader
asked a question I should have expected: didn’t the Tokugawa Shogunate
successfully suppress firearms in Japan?

No. Actually, they didn’t. Many American believe they did because
they’ve vaguely heard the argument of Noel Perrin’s book Giving
Up The Gun
, explaining that the Tokugawa Shogunate successfully
suppressed firearms in Japan, partly by promoting the cult of the
sword.

But the book was wrong. Arthur Tiedemann, an eminent historian of
Japan, once explained this to me personally. It seems that if you
study the actual weapons inventories of daimyo houses, it turns out
they maintained firearms and firearms-wielding troops from the
Battle of Sekigahara clear through to the Meiji Restoration.

This was especially true of the so-called ‘outside
lords’, the descendants of the survivors of the losing side at
Sekigahara. Their domains were far from the capitol at Edo and the
shogunate’s control over them was often little more than nominal.

But to significant degree it was true everywhere. The shogunate
banned firearms, the daimyos pretended to obey the ban, and the
shogunate pretended to believe them. A very Japanese, face-saving
compromise.

Perrin, alas, was taken in, perhaps because he wanted to be.
Hoplophobes have been citing his book with approval ever since. But
while it doesn’t seem to have been a deliberate fraud like Michael
Bellesisles’s Arming America, it’s just as false to
fact.

10 thoughts on “Giving Up The Gun

  1. About the “guns & samurai” discussion.

    There is no such thing as “how the samurai were”. The Sengoku Jidai samurai were in some aspects very much like today’s Japanese. They had very had two defining characteristics, which the Meiji samurai didn’t:

    - They were tremendously practical. There was a war to win.
    - They embraced novelty, and foreign things. They not only used muskets but also dressed in western armor as a sign of luxury. Every foreigner was milked of any useful knowledge and technology.

    The samurai just before the Meiji period were the descendants of a privileged non-productive caste which had done all possible to keep the country freezed in time in order to retain their privileges. They did know the outside world had practical inventions, but knew that they would spell their ending. *These* samurai cherished everything old for oldness sake.

    So while they did retain muskets, they would have frowned on modernising them or on adopting new tactics. At least, they didn’t during the Boshin war. XVIth century samurai surely would have done so.

    And here’s another reasoning against the “it’s a lefty anti-gun plot”.

    So the lefties don’t like guns. Right.

    But do they like *katanas*?

  2. I’d think hoplophobes wouldn’t want to bring up Meiji-era Japan even if it were a true case of firearms being suppressed:
    1. Rigid social stratification,
    2. no technological or other progress,
    3. lords hacking the heads off of peasants whenever they liked, and
    4. the roots of the most insanely militaristic nation of the 20th century.

    OK, maybe the hoplophobe statists who’ve misappropriated the name “liberals” secretly think 3 out of 4 isn’t bad, but I don’t think they want to publicly admit that # 1-3 are their goals…

  3. Eric,

    Thanks for addressing my question about guns in Japan. It seems that even Jared Diamond was taken in (though his larger point about isolation and technology loss remains — Japanese guns just aren’t a valid example). It’s a shame, too, since the truth is more interesting — and gives more insight into Japanese culture — than the myth.

  4. I first read GIVING UP THE GUN over 20 years ago and have scanned my copy recenly. There is a lot of what one might call marginal history in it. One pertinent issue in it does however seem to be true. With the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate Japanese technological progress in firearms ceased. Even though the Dutch gave them examples of flintlock firearms in the early 1600s, they continued to make the inferior matchlock for another two centuries, into the 19th century.
    It was not that they were not capable of making flintlocks. Flintlocks may be more advanced than matchlocks, but they are no more difficult to build, maybe even a bit easier.
    The reason for this however is obvious. The Shogunate was able to successfully suppress actual warfare. I think that if there had been some sort of breakdown resulting in a civil war, or an invasion, they would have tooled up to make flintlocks in about a day.
    As an avid firearms enthusiast and a student of firearms history I do have one more note. Matchlock muskets from the Tokugawa era are actually fairly common in firearms collections in the US. Most of them were looted during the post WWII occupation. Somebody must have been keeping them someplace! But it is also notable that almost none of these matchlocks ever seem to have been fired.

  5. Watching the previews for The Last Samurai, it didn’t seem to me like the Samurai would have any chance at all against the gun-wielding Japanese military, which made the movie seem a tad…unrealistic. Of course the previews were funnier when all you saw was “The Last Samurai – Starring Tom Cruise”.

  6. What you movie goers don’t seem to get is that the whole idea of a westerner being taken in by the clans that rebelled against the Shogun is insane. Unification in 1603 led to large scale pink slips for retainers but the Ronin remained relatively peaceful until the British insodent at Chusho and the intervention of Admiral Perry with Gun- Boat Diplomacy! Westerners were expelled from Japan in 1600 because they were seen as barbarians, the Gunboats brought them back and were a threat to the existing class structure which construed Merchants as street whores.

    As for Guns themselves the battle that put the Tokugawa at the top was decided by guns. The Tokugawa themselves were against swords once they were in power and so began a sword hunt to remove all swords from the commoners. Keep in mind that what are now called Samurai were only 10% of the population!

    Musashi himself in the book of the five rings haled the gun as the weapon of choice in battles but it is naive to believe that it is universally better than a sword! If you have to draw 15 ft. or less don’t bet on the gun, or consider the last assaign in 1950s Japan was a man with a short sword!Look at the Godfather, Michael’s first big hit was up close and personal and very well could have been done by an expert swordsman which is the same kind of intrigue that was common in the period leading up to and including the Restoration. Go watch a real Iaido master and you will see he is no joke!

  7. I pity gun lovers. Those kind of people may never have visited other countries and felt the freedom of NOT FEARING the other one might have a weapon. You can go everywhere in Europe and even Turkey without being afraid being robbed or killed or what so ever! Freedom to have the right to wear a weapon! HA!! That’s why human beings are the only animals which kill one another. Have you ever imagined a world without weapons?

  8. This is not likely to be read so long after the original exchanges, but here goes.

    Starting somewhere after 1844, the Shogunate actively started obtaining “modern” firearms. By the 1850s, it had adopted Dutch military manual and rewritten it in Japanese and were trying to form more modern units. The problem was the samurai’s resistance to change and the fact that firearm troops had been the lowest social group until 1844.

    As to the book Giving Up the Gun, one aside in it was that the Japanese were as medically advanced as the Europeans and he cites a book published in Japan. The problem is that it was written based on a Dutch anatomy book that the author was provided by the Bakufu, this from a book written by a historian, not an English professor with a political ax to grind about guns.

    PS: Japan was not closed. It had been skirmishing and talking to the Russians since they began taking Japanese territory somewhere shortly after 1700. Japan originally held trading stations on the Siberian coast, the Kyrils and all of Sakhlin (not finally surrendered until 1875, and then only to keep the Russians from Hokkaido. Trade and intelligence operations had continued throughout the period with the Dutch, Chinese and Koreans. Additionally, Siam was a trade partner officially until 1630 and unofficially until later.

  9. If we are going to trace the history of Shogunate in Japan, we can see they have embraced the use of swords instead of guns especially in battles. This is an honored way to preserving their culture and history. These days, in modern day Japan, we can still observed that they have preserved their traditions such as the use or samurai.

    Ancient Chinese Inventions

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