I Do Not Think This Means What You Think It Means

The Anchoress quotes a guy quoting another guy who wrote a book about Japan “Giving Up the Gun”. Japanese history scholars warn people against this book as ludicrously bad and stupid, but not everybody has gotten the word.

1. Japan didn’t “give up the gun,” and certainly not by any kind of society-wide consensus. Guns were made a government monopoly to prevent the overthrow of the Tokugawa warlords, mostly because Tokugawa didn’t have the guts to try to actually govern a free country. So the government executed pretty much everybody who knew how to make a gun, and made the rest into well-paid prisoners whose children were obliged to follow their trade and also become well-paid prisoners. But lots of people still had guns hidden and carefully maintained, and secret Japanese gunsmiths did carry on (in secret). Often they had a dual trade in fireworks or jewelry, to explain all the gunpowder and/or metalworking. Simultaneously, trade was cut off with the outside world. (Although some lords in remote places carried on smuggling, and the government did some trading for itself.)

2. The only reason extreme gun control worked there was that it went along with extreme government terrorization of every level of society, as well as laws designed to prevent unity across social status. (And lots of killing off Catholics, btw. A faith that teaches the brotherhood of humanity and an order that does a lot of science and schmoozing are obviously unwanted by totalitarians, although previous national leaders who just wanted the country unified and running had favored Christianity.)

3. One of the main measures was to allow men of the samurai class to kill any person of the peasant class they felt like, at any time, without government punishment, including rich merchants and tradespeople. This tore apart the natural alliance between samurai and merchants which had been forming, turned samurai into social outcasts that could have no life without approved service to great lords (daimyo), and made it nearly impossible for merchants to offer unemployed but educated samurai jobs as clerks. (It also discouraged samurai from putting aside the sword and living as commoners, because they became big fat targets.) The poor were pretty much helpless, unless they became criminals. (Thus the power of Yakuza organized crime in Japanese society, even today.)

4 So if you are willing to sacrifice all technological development for the sake of gun control, lock everyone into a country-wide prison to prevent trade in guns, destroy society’s bonds of amity and create grudges and constant suspicion so nobody can revolt against it or change things, force organized crime to become powerful enough to survive, maintain large numbers of secret informers, and kill off anybody who disagrees in the slightest, you can certainly make it so that (mostly) only your fanatically loyal servants have guns. (And your fanatically disloyal enemies.) If you’re ruthless enough, you can keep the ball rolling for even four hundred years. But then society will collapse, you’ll be subject to victimization by other countries, you’ll have huge military buildups out of fear, you’ll start a world war, and then you’ll collapse your society again. It’s been two hundred years since the fall of the Shoguns, and Japan is still picking up the pieces.

5. Even now, the enduring effect on the Japanese character was to encourage hiding and repressing one’s feelings, and also to encourage people without family or local ties to feel free to carry out incredibly desperate and bloodthirsty acts, because they were the only ones who wouldn’t be killing off their whole village by freaking out and going on a revenge killing spree. It also encouraged suicide as a cure for unhappiness and desperation, because nobody can kill off your village if you kill yourself. Oh, and the deep class, regional, religious, and professional divisions encouraged by the Tokugawa system still divide Japanese society in ways that outsiders find hard to understand, and the police have some very odd ideas about what they’re allowed to do to you if you’re arrested, because you wouldn’t be arrested unless you were guilty.

So, Japan is not a good example. Not a good example at all. Japan is still clawing its way back from what you think is so great. There was no peace. There were hundreds of years without open battles between lords, but with constant danger to life and liberty and property on every level of society: from government whim, from informers, from bandits and criminals, from angry poor samurai, from each other.



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4 responses to “I Do Not Think This Means What You Think It Means

  1. A lot of that, I didn’t know….but suddenly a LOT of tropes in anime, and the traditional stories they’re based on, makes a lot more sense.

    • Oh, there’s a ton of stuff related to this. Like, why do “proper” rich Japanese businessmen dress and live so soberly? Because a rich merchant in Tokugawa times had every reason to conceal his wealth. There was even a whole aesthetic of concealed wealth, where the outside of a kimono is sober black or blue and not particularly fine fabric, but the inside is lined with amazing colors of the richest silk.

  2. Pingback: A History Lesson « Head Noises

  3. AetherSkies

    It isn’t directly related to gun control, but Hideyoshi’s ‘sword hunt’ really seems to have set the tone for the Tokugawa gun monopoly, and all of the legal, violent class warfare between the samurai/daimyo and… everyone else. By stripping away the more traditional means of self- and mutual-defense the peasantry and monks had, Hideyoshi was creating the expectation that from that point forward functionally all arms would be a monopoly of the Shogun and those of his class. Even Nobunaga’s wars with the independent temples seems to have been clearing the way for the Tokugawa’s eventual reign of terror.

    Really, it is amazing the Japanese managed to build the commercial and manufacturing infrastructure that they did under the Tokugawa.

    Apologies for posting on a somewhat old topic, but I thought you had some interesting points.

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