In 1854, United States Commodore Matthew Perry finally succeeded in pressuring Japan to reopen itself to trade for the first time in nearly 200 years. Americans coming to Japan discovered, to their surprise, that Japanese firearms still touched a slow-burning match to powder when the trigger was pulled. The western world had long ago replaced this “matchlock” ignition system with the flintlock. Its militaries had since progressed to using percussion caps, with cartridge systems not far off. The matchlock guns still used in Japan were incredibly antiquated in comparison. Their mechanism remained largely unchanged since Portuguese sailors introduced firearms to Japan in 1543. Why had Japanese firearms technology seemingly progressed so little?
Giving Up the Gun
Noel Perrin argued in his book Giving up the Gun that after forcing Japan’s isolation, the Tokugawa Shogunate made a conscious decision to remove firearms from Japanese society. Their massive program of confiscation took weapons away from peasants and the military. The Shogunate throttled firearms production. Smiths lost business or turned to sword-smithing. Though matchlock firearms showed promise in Japan’s 1592 invasion of Korea, Japanese warfare in the 1600s returned to an affair of sword against sword.
Perrin published his book in 1979. His idea that Japan purposefully “gave up the gun” still colors collective understanding of Japan’s relationship with firearms. However, further research in the intervening years has revealed fundamental flaws in his view. While the Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi did order the seizure of weapons from all non-samurai in the 1580s and ’90s, that meant swords. Swords symbolized nobility, and he wanted to reserve them for the Samurai class. Peasants had no business with swords in peacetime. Though the Japanese military used guns in the invasion of Korea, after 1592 their conception of guns as weapons faded away. Instead, guns became tools.
Guns, But Not Weapons
Peasant-owned firearms fit into one of two categories based on their use as tools of daily life. Hunters used ryoshi teppo, while farmers loaded odoshi teppo with blanks to scare off wild pigs and other crop-threatening beasts. As long their owners registered their firearm with the government under one of these two categories, firearms were permitted among the lower classes, and the gun-focused confiscation program enacted in 1657 passed them over. In fact, most peasant gun owners kept their guns with government approval.
After 1709, the Shogunate allowed peasants to load odoshi teppo with live ammunition for the first time. It also encouraged their use to thin out wild pests. Its stance on peasant possession of weapons was clearly softening. Still, the distinction between odoshi and ryoshi teppo remained. Hunters relied on ryoshi teppo for their livelihoods, while odoshi teppo remained peripheral tools for farmers—helpful but unnecessary for crop-growing itself.
Reluctant to Kill
The view of guns as daily tools and not weapons persisted throughout the rest of Japan’s century and a half of isolation. No one considered firearms instruments to kill others, even in self-defense. Their character as weapons only returned after Commodore Perry reopened Japan to trade. Japan could see its trading partners used significantly more advanced guns to prosecute their wars. But even then, when a man’s home came under attack in 1864, he fired a gun just once: as a distress signal. The only recorded shooting death of a person during this time was an accident.
For Japan’s entire period of isolation, nothing challenged this widespread perception of firearms. Whether hunting or scaring away pests, matchlock firearms needed no improvement. There was no impulse driving firearms technology, no arms race. As the Tokugawa Shogunate began to show the signs of collapse in the later 1800s, bandits and masterless samurai becoming more common. The Shogunate encouraged peasants to use guns to fight back, but almost no one did. Guns still had an entirely different status in Japanese culture than in the western world. It would take almost fifty years of interaction between the two for that to change.
Howell, David L. “The Social Life of Firearms in Tokugawa Japan.” Japanese Studies 29, No. 1, May 2009.
Perrin, Noel. Giving up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543–1879. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1979.