Giving Up the Gun
By Victor Milan
Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise
It's an article of faith that the Japanese voluntarily "gave up the gun." Not just anti-gunners but technophobes of all stripes derive great comfort from this belief. But the story -- like most stories you hear about Japan -- is not that simple. And the truth has interesting implications for the whole issue of weapons control.
In 1588, the man who actually unified Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, banned "the people of the various provinces" from possessing weapons, including firearms. The military still got to keep them, and Hideyoshi's successor Tokugawa Iyeyasu made heavy use of small arms and artillery in consolidating his own control of the country. But aside from government-licensed shooting clubs, guns did largely indeed disappear from "the various provinces." And even the military showed little fondness for them, though they stayed in the arsenal.
So, yes, to all practical purposes, the Japanese people "gave up the gun." But there's small mystery as to why. At first, the Japanese took to tanegashima teppo, "the iron rods of Tanegashima," with the same enthusiasm with which they would later embrace automatic rice steamers and VCRs. But that was just a fling. In time they went back to their true love.
Much anguish is exuded about the American love affair with guns. The Japanese love swords, if anything more deeply and passionately. The sword formed the backbone of samurai society, and the cult of the blade survives to this day. For example, since the Second World War the Yakuza criminal gangs have been active in weapons smuggling in a major way. Yaks can tote any weapon they want to -- these days, conceivably MIRVed ex-Soviet ICBMs. Yet they still do each other with swords and daggers. Why?
Impersonal violence has little appeal for the Japanese. Americans like to draw fast and shoot; Japanese like to be able to feel a weapon strike meat. If they're going to commit bodily harm, they want to feel blood on their knuckles.
Moreover, guns weren't all that Hideyoshi banned in 1588. He got everything, including bows, spears, and, yes, swords. His Sword Hunt completed the subjection of the people.
Certain commentators have contrasted Hideyoshi's perceptiveness in recognizing the threat posed by an armed populace to the obliviousness of the European nobility. There's a good reason for that: old Hideyoshi wasn't a noble. He was a risen peasant. He didn't want anyone to do unto him as he had done.
So he banned even the beloved sword, the katana. And that spelled the end of crime and resistance in Japan, yes?
In truth the Japanese peasants were never disarmed. They were just denied the most efficient weapons systems. During the Tokugawa bakufu or military dictatorship -- history's most successful police state -- there were over 1000 violent insurrections of note. The most ferocious of all, the siege of Shimabara, began in the early 17th century when the nobles dispatched thirty-seven boats packed to the gunwales with samurai to put a rebellious bunch of scrubby island commoners in their place.
The nobles got back one boat. With two warriors in it. Who died.
Like most of those revolts, Shimabara was eventually put down with utter brutality. Not all defiance to the all-powerful Tokugawa Shogunate ended that way.
The Japanese have a special love for swords, but they're buggy for melee weapons in general. Not as buggy as the Okinawans whom they oppressed and disarmed, who made weapons out of things like thresher-handles, oars, and rakes, but they're hoplophiles, even if closet ones these days. By the early 19th century commoner-class urban swaggerers -- your street gangs, if you will -- favored, as weapons, tobacco pipes, called kiseru. To be sure, kiseru tended to be a foot and a half to three feet long, made out of a heavy gauge of metal, and to have handguards like a sword, but they were tobacco pipes withal. And during street riots early in the 19th century, the street scum kicked the stuffing out of the Shogun's cops in the capital city of Yedo with them.
As the saying goes, "something had to be done." [Experiment: next time somebody says that -- "Something's got to be done" -- in support of some proposed government assault on our rights or property, reply, "OK, then, cut off your left foot. That's something." Let me know how this turns out.] The bakufu jumped right on it. They banned kiseru, too.
And indeed the gangs duly gave up their tobacco pipes -- and went back to using the still-illegal but more efficiently lethal daggers, shortswords, and katana. Just as our own street gangs are moving to fully automatic weapons which have been proscribed since 1927. That's progress.
About the time Perry rudely kicked open Japan's front door [the back was never closed], the reigning Shogun wanted to travel from one side of Yedo to the other. So he negotiated safe-passage from every neighborhood he intended to pass through. Yes, the absolute dictator of Japan had to get written permission from gang-bangers to cross his own capital: Yojimboz 'N' The Hood.
What does this imply for suffering mankind? First, that cross-cultural comparisons are slippery little eels at best, something our industrial-policy buffs could stand to keep in mind. But more to the point, Japan's "giving up the gun" resulted from cultural preference, not successful policy. Hideyoshi's grand experiment was a failure. Indeed, it failed of its fundamental purpose almost at once; his loyal lieutenant Iyeyasu betrayed him before his corpse got cold, murdering Hideyoshi's heir, whom he had sworn to support, and eradicating his supporters. So much for ensuring the succession.
The Japanese got guns off the street. It didn't help. They got swords off the street. That didn't help. When they got around to banning tobacco pipes -- when kiseru are outlawed, only outlaws will have kiseru -- swords came back. And today, if the plaints of the Japanese government are to be believed, guns are making a comeback.
Despite being backed by an extraordinarily repressive police state, weapons control did not produce a docile or crime-free Japan. But then, gun control has not exactly produced a docile or crime-free Detroit or Washington, DC, either.
Our gun grabbers should quit looking into the Rising Sun for support before it scorches their retinas.
Winner of the 1985 Prometheus Award for his novel The Cybernetic Samurai, Victor Milan is the author of many SF, fantasy, adventure, and historical novels. His most recent release is another damned dystopian novel cryptically entitled CLD.
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