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Samurai Archives Japanese History Podcast


May 30, 2011

In this podcast we examine the myth of Japan's Samurai giving up the gun during the Edo period (1603-1868). In 1979, Professor Noel Perrin wrote a book called Giving Up the Gun, Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, and in this book he claims that Japan gave up the gun, or "put the genie back in the bottle" as it were, and pushes his theory to show that the contemporary nuclear arms race happening as he wrote the book could be reversed. A great thought, unfortunately in academic circles in the West and Japan, his work is not taken seriously, and the Japanese language version explicitly states that the book is not based on historical fact. Despite this, writers and scholars who do not generally focus on Japan have liberally cited his work, which has kept the myth alive. Add to that the pop-culture image of Samurai as honor-bound righteous warriors who would never do something so dishonorable as shoot an enemy from a distance, and it's easy to see why the myth has endured.
Japan in fact didn't "give up the gun" at all. Guns were being produced and used throughout the Edo period. It was more of an issue of guns not being necessary during this time of peace, and Samurai already being armed with swords as a matter of course anyway - why bring a bulky, long-barreled muzzle-loading single-shot arquebus to a sword duel?

Mentioned in this podcast:

Etheridge, Charles, Reinventing the Sword: A Cultural Comparison of the Development of the Sword in Response to the Advent of Firearms in Spain and Japan. (Thesis) LA State University, 2007

Arima, Seiho, The Western Influence on Japanese Military Science, Shipbuilding, and Navigation Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 19 No. 3/4 Sophia University, 1964

Perrin, Noel, Giving Up the Gun, Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879 D. R. Godine; First Edition edition 1979

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