Why Japan Quickly Adopted, then Abandoned Guns for 200 Years

While reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond I came across an interesting few paragraphs on guns. Actually, the theme was not even about guns so much as the diffusion of inventions geographically and across societies. Diamond argues that geography can have a great effect on how readily a society adopts new technologies, and even sometimes lead to the abandonment of those powerful new technologies. He says that since today societies are so connected, even if a fad made one society turn against a useful technology, the people would still see that technology used by a neighboring society, leading them to eventually re-adopt it, or risk being conquered or outcompeted. But certain factors have in the past made entire countries reject an initially revered new technology.

A famous example involves Japan’s abandonment of guns. Firearms reached Japan in A.D. 1543, when two Portuguese adventurers armed with harquebuses (primitive guns) arrived on a Chinese cargo ship. The Japanese were so impressed by the new weapon, that they commenced indigenous gun production, greatly improved gun technology, and by A.D. 1600 owned more and better guns than any other country in the world.

But there were also factors working against the acceptance of firearms in Japan. The country had a numerous warrior class, the samurai, for whom swords rated as class symbols and works of art (and as a means for subjugating the lower classes). Japanese warfare had previously involved single combats between samurai swordsmen, who stood in the open, made ritual speeches, and then took pride in fighting gracefully. Such behavior became lethal in the presence of peasant soldiers ungracefully blasting away with guns. In addition, guns were a foreign invention and grew to be despised, as did other things foreign in Japan after 1600. The samurai controlled government began by restricting gun production to a few cities, then introduced a requirement of a government license for producing a gun, then issued licenses only for guns produced for the government, and finally reduced government orders for guns, until Japan was almost without functional guns again.

Contemporary European rulers also included some who despised guns and tried to restrict their availability. But such measures never got far in Europe, where any country that temporarily swore off firearms would be promptly overrun by gun-toting neighboring countries. Only because Japan was a populous, isolated island could it get away with its rejection of the powerful new military technology. Its safety in isolation came to an end in 1853, when the visit of Commodore Perry’s U.S. fleet bristling with cannons convinced Japan of its need to resume gun manufacture. (Diamond, 257-258)

So the Japanese saw an obvious advantage to military technology in guns, and quickly adopted them. But then the government, controlled by samurai warriors saw that the guns posed a threat to their power in the hands of the lower classes. Peasants could not compete with a sword wielding, highly trained warrior in one on one combat, but they could shoot at that highly trained swordsman from a safe distance. Tradition and the desire for glory in graceful combat, coupled with the desire to continue to subjugate the peasants made the samurai government reject guns, and move to suppress their manufacture.

Because Japan was an island, this tactic worked in maintaining government power over the peasants without putting the nation’s security at risk for hundreds of years. But as Diamond points out, this tactic of suppressing gun manufacture and diffusion did not work as well for Europeans, who would quickly be conquered by those with guns if they rejected the new technology, since they generally did not enjoy the relative geographic safety an island gave Japan.

The lessons still apply: rejecting powerful military technology will not lead to peace when your neighbors still have that equipment, whether we are talking about countries or individuals. Governments will still use the same tactics to subjugate peasants when technology threatens their power, whether it be guns or the internet. And the diffusion of inventions over easily traversed land mass cannot be stopped. Today we figuratively have no islands. Once something is invented, it cannot be uninvented. Even if a society were to temporally eradicate firearms, they would quickly be reintroduced as the fad wears off and neighbors are observed benefitting from the technology, if that society is not first “overrun by gun-toting neighbor[s]”.

5 thoughts on “Why Japan Quickly Adopted, then Abandoned Guns for 200 Years

  1. Pingback: Justifying the Upward Redistribution of Wealth in Centralized Societies | Vigilant Vote

  2. Pingback: Competition and Political Disunity Made Europe Technologically Dominant | Vigilant Vote

  3. Pingback: Competition and Political Disunity Made Europe Technologically Dominant | Joe Jarvis

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