1588: a massive sword hunt is launched across the Japanese archipelago. The mission: disarming peasants and warrior monks and reinforcing central government, while at the same time supplying the army with free weapons. This is the story of a forgotten (yet decisive) chapter of Japanese history.
The sword — katana — is the utimate weapon of any Japanese warrior. According to ancient beliefs, ‘the sword is the soul of the samurai’ (katana wa bushi no tamashii). It is a mystic tool that has marked Japanese history for centuries, up until the Second World War, when defeated officers would carry one on the battlefield and sometimes commit hara kiri, either to escape capture or dishonor. Almost any man could own such a weapon given its symbolic significance. Hence the lack of any sword-control regulation before the 17th century; one could find katanas in various (and unexpected) places, like Buddhist temples or peasants’ huts.
Pioneering Gun Control
At the time, Japan wasn’t unified. It was a composite territory, featuring provinces more or less hostile toward one another. Though a central authority had emerged — the imperial regent, or kampaku, protected by samurai nobility –, local clans and unscrupulous vassals still ruled in distant regions. The regent, Hideyoshi, aimed at unifying the archipelago through lightning-invasions, which he ultimately managed in 1588. Then, he decided that wasn’t enough to prevent further rebellions and uprisings; instead, he wanted everyone but his own men to drop their weapons.
This marked the start of the ‘sword hunts’ (katanagari), a large-scale weapon requisition that would have a lasting influence on the archipelago.
Hideyoshi did, however, hide his motives from the population. He did not reveal that he was disarming the country for fear of an uprising. Peasant revolts (hyakushō ikki) were still topical at the time, because of recurrent famines and heavy taxation. In the dimly-lit monasteries, warrior monks also stored weapons, and sometimes used them to rise up against the local lord. Hideyoshi wanted these uprisings a thing of the past, so he sent his armies comb temples, villages and domains alike, and bring any found weapons home.
What did Hideyoshi tell the population, then, to justify this large-scale requisition? The kampaku promised that the swords “will be used as rivets and bolts in the construction of the Great Image of Buddha. In this way, farmers will benefit not only in this life but also in the lives to come.” A safe excuse: if weapons were melted into a Buddha statue — said to be erected at Kyoto’s Hōkō-ji Temple — then civilians would certainly let go of them.
This skilled maneuver did not only enable Hideyoshi to disarm the warrior-monks of Mount Kōya — the beating heart of Japanese Buddhism — under the pretext of devotion; it also planted the seeds of social reform that the kampaku badly wished for. Indeed, once his weapons were taken away, any civilian joined a social class: peasants, clergymen, merchants… Leaving the privilege of wielding a sword around to the powerful samurais.
Home at peace, world at war
Did the population see that coming? A Jesuit missionary wrote:
And all this not from the devotion he had for the idol, but out of mere ostentation and the greatness of his name […]. And he is astutely planning to possess himself of all the iron in Japan […]. Thus the populace is disarmed, and he the more secure in his arbitrary dominion.
The following years would prove him right. A big chunk of the requisitioned weapons was not melted, but stored for further use and future not-so-peaceful days. Take Korea in 1592, where the Japanese army met fierce resistance, or pirate attacks in the early 1590s. Further sword hunts were also ordered to supply soldiers with firearms.
As a result, despite external conflicts, Hideyoshi’s sword hunts paved the way for two centuries of peace at home. Japan settled down a bit, and no further events of this kind would be organized until well into the Meiji Restoration (1860s), when samurais finally lost their katana-carrying privilege. Perhaps that time of peace was a sign that the Great Buddha, whose statue was erected near Kyoto, guaranteed the protection of unarmed civilians? Not so likely: the holy sculpture was swept away by an earthquake less than one year following its construction… Stolen katanas had taken their revenge.
- Jeffrey P. Mass, The Bakufu in Japanese History (1993), Stanford University Press.
- David J. Lu, Japan: A Documentary History: The Dawn of History to the Late Tokugawa Period (2015), Routledge: New York.
- Stephen Turnbull, Samurai: The World of the Warrior (2011), Bloomsbury.
- Kallie Szczepanski, “What Was the Sword Hunt in Japan?”, ThoughtCo, 18/7/2018.
- “The Japanese Sword. Katana Wa Bushi No Tamashii (The Sword Is the Soul of the Samurai)” Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin, vol. 4, no. 21, 1906, pp. 29–31. JSTOR.
- Antony Cummins, Samurai and Ninja: The Real Story Behind the Japanese Warrior Myth that Shatters the Bushido Mystique (2016), Tuttle Publishing.