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[The following passage is from Gwynne Dyer’s illuminating 1985 book, War.]

They have not more than five hundred match-lock men, and if you reckon on them all hitting at the first volley, and also at the second, for after that men shoot wildly, we shall not lose more than a thousand killed and wounded, and that is nothing much.

(Gen Atobe Oinosuke’s advice to his lord, Takeda Katsuyori

before the battle of Nagashino, 1575)

Modern European firearms had reached Japan in Portuguese ships in 1542, and within a generation the Japanese were manufacturing cannons and arquebuses that were fully comparable to the contemporary European weapons. By the sixteenth century, when the entire country was caught up in a long civil war, the Japanese were also using their firearms more effectively than the Europeans. In 1567 Lord Takeda Shingen instructed his officers, “Hereafter, guns will be the most important arms. Therefore decrease the number of spears [per unit], and have your most capable men carry guns.” He was killed by a bullet himself six years later.

It was his successor, Takeda Katsuyori, who was reassured by his general in 1575 that he faced only five hundred musketeers at the crucial battle of Nagashino (re-created in the superb 1980 Japanese film Kagemusha). But General Atobe’s advice to his master was disastrously wrong, for his enemies, Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga, had not five hundred but ten thousand arquebusiers. They were drawn up in three ranks and trained to fire in volleys, one rank at a time, so that there was no long pause in the firing during reloading—a practice that did not appear on European battlefields for another half-century. But Takeda took his general’s advice and committed all his men in a series of frontal assaults. The defenders stood their ground and fired methodically, mowing down sixteen thousand of Takeda’s men. The Takeda clan never recovered from its losses.

Nobunaga and I were superior in numbers, and yet though we had a triple stockade in front of us he must come charging down on it. Naturally he got beaten. But if he had taken up a position behind the Takigawa river he could have held us for ten days anyhow and we should have had to retire . . . . It is a pity he was such a fool.

Tokugawa Ieyasu

In 1575, Japanese musketry was already the best in the world, and by the time of the great invasion of Korea in 1590, when three hundred thousand Japanese troops were bogged down by Korean resistance and facing a massive Chinese intervention, no practical Japanese soldier wanted to hear about edged weapons. One Japanese lord wrote home saying, “Please arrange to send us guns and ammunition. There is absolutely no need for spears.” Another ordered that his reinforcements should “bring as many guns as possible. . . . Give strict orders that all the men, even samurai, carry guns.”

And yet by 1675 there was hardly a gun of any kind to be found in Japan, and they had altogether disappeared from war. It is one of the most extraordinary about-faces in history: the Japanese looked down the road on which firearms were taking them, decided they did not like the destination, and simply turned back. When Perry’s “black ships” finally forced Japan to reestablish contact with the rest of the world in 1854, they found a perfectly preserved medieval society, in which the weapons of war were swords, spears, and bows and arrows.

It is true that by 1615 the “Age of the Country at War” was over. Tokugawa’s long struggle against his rivals ended in complete victory and inaugurated a period of over two centuries during which Japan had a relatively stable feudal system of government: the urgent pressure for efficiency in war was diminished. But that is not enough to explain the deliberate abandonment of firearms by the Japanese, nor is it to be imagined that seventeenth-century Japanese could foresee the ultimately devastating consequences of future developments in weapons technology. What worried them was the social implications of muzzle-loading muskets in the here and now—and rightly so.

It is not doing too much violence to history to compare the warrior class of samurai in Japan with the feudal nobility of Europe. Both were groups who owed their wealth, power, and social position to their proficiency with arms and derived their own self-respect from it. But proficiency with arms is only an important distinguishing mark if it takes long and arduous training to achieve and has a direct relationship to a man’s chances of success and survival in battle—as it does with the sword, the spear, or the bow. Firearms take far less time to master and are much more democratic in their effects: samurai and commoners died with equal speed and equal futility in Takeda’s desperate charges at Nagashino.

From the very beginning, the introduction of guns to battle roused resistance in Japan, because they practically abolished the single combats in which samurai could win personal glory—and the professional warrior class in Japan was huge: between 7 percent and 10 percent of the population, compared to less than 1 percent for the feudal nobility in Europe. The samurais’ distaste for guns was so great that the majority of Oda’s matchlock-men at Nagashino were yeoman farmers—which simply increased the offensiveness of the new weapon to the samurai: they were being killed by their social inferiors.

Once the civil wars and the Korean adventure were over, therefore, the pressure of the samurai became irresistible. In 1607 Tokugawa Ieyasu centralized firearms production at only two centers and created a commissioner of guns to license all orders. In practice only government orders were licensed, and those dwindled away to nothing in the course of the seventeenth century; as their craft was slowly strangled, the best Japanese gunsmiths gradually turned to making swords. Technological change is not irreversible; the ruling military caste in Japan gave up the gun because they feared that its socially leveling implications would ultimately undermine the military equation that kept them at the top of the social order.

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