Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Samurai Misconceptions 2

Samurai hated guns, calling them "cowards' weapons"

Hollywood, along with the general public, has come to view the samurai as sword-wielding heroes of an age long gone. Guns just don't fit into our picture of that; therefore, samurai must not have used guns.

In fact, the Japanese were using guns more effectively than their European counterparts by the sixteenth century, as well as producing more accurate, durable varieties. The battle of Nagashino, where guns tore through charging samurai cavalry, is one of the most famous and influential battles in the history of the samurai. The samurai were not stupid; in fact, they were renown for their adaptability. The Mongolian invasion, Chinese royal culture, and enterprising Western powers all influenced medieval Japan at one time or another. In fact, the kimono, one of the most famous symbols of Japan, came from China during the Heian period. It was no different when the Portuguese introduced a devastating new weapon called the arquebuse (or teppo, in Japanese). No matter how much the samurai loved their bow, they weren't oblivious to the fact that the gun obviously outclassed their previous artillery choice. Several forms of guns were used, from the general old-fashioned musket-like gun we tend to think about, to large hand cannons, to even the rare full canon (which were generally taken off of crashed European ships). They were all used with devastating efficiency. One of the greatest daimyo (general/feudal lord) of the Warring States era, Oda Nobunaga, was well renowned for his brilliance with gunnery tactics. Others, such as Takeda Shingen, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Date Masamune were also well known for using snipers, entrenched artillery, and sometimes just mass amounts of gunners, with devastating results..

Some believe that because foot soldiers (ashigaru) were the primary users of guns the samurai must have detested them. Instead, the ashigaru were simply too disposable to teach them anything more complicated. This didn't mean that samurai were not also taught how to use guns; in fact, they were generally taught more in depth. It is also notable that, of the honors granted in battle, the one granted to a gun unit was surpassed only by taking a head in individual combat.

This information comes directly from the Kitsuno, the Forum Shogun at the Samurai Archives. A great source for information about the samurai and other aspects of Japanese history prior to the Meiji Restoration.


  1. One interesting point on this; Is that until the development of rifling and other firearm ingenuity, the bow was far superior in accuracy and repetition of fire over the early firearms.

    -Napoleon and others however recognized the psychological affects that the firearm possessed. The noise and flash combined in large groups often routed enemies with few actual casualties.

    Artillery was actually cause of far more casualties than early firearms in early military conflicts.

    Samurai were actually doing themselves a favor by avoiding early firearms.

    -Read Grossman's "On Killing" for a bit more in depth look.

  2. I'll have to look for that. The samurai during the Sengoku period became fairly proficient with the firearm or the arquebuse. It is my understanding that many daimyo outfitted their samurai with fairly moderen firearms for the time.

  3. I have two articles in English that cover guns in Sengoku Japan.

    Delmer Brown. "The Impact of Firearms on Japanese Warfare 1543-98," Far Eastern Quarterly. vol. 7, no. 3 (May 1948): pp. 236-253.

    Paul Varley. "Oda Nobunaga, Guns, and Early Modern Warfare in Japan," James Baxter and Joshua Fogel (ed), Writing Histories in Japan; Texts and Their Transformations from Ancient Times through the Meiji Era, pp. 105-125. Tokyo: International Research for Japanese Studies, 2007.

    Both articles are in my private library and valuable they are.

  4. Yeah, even Star Wars took that "swords are superior weapons" philosphy to hear with the Jedi preferring light sabers to blasters.

    Don't call me a geek! I just remembered that while reading your post.

    I'm a geek, but not a Star Wars geek.

  5. Otsuke, I too have read the Varley article. Very informative. I have not read the Brown article. Obenjo sent me the Varley article. Do you know where I can get the Brown article? Do you have an electronic version?

    I have thought of that too Billy. It is pretty clear that the samurai influenced Star Wars.

  6. Fascinating - and corrects the impressions of samurai weapon choice that I gleaned from reading 'Musashi'...

  7. The true and primary weapon of the samurai was actually the bow and arrow. During the Warring period (Sengoku) the sword was really a backup weapon like a sidearm carried by a modern soldier whose primary weapon is the rifle. Later, during the 250 year peace of the Tokugawa shoguns when Musashi lived, did the sword become the primary weapon and the symbol of the samurai.

  8. Not to mention the fact that, towards the end of the samurai era, some of the most famous (or infamous, I guess) samurai figures, such as Sakamoto Ryoma, used handguns of some sort.

    Or so I get the impression, based on fanciful romanticized accounts in manga and such.


    I can email you the Delmer Brown article if you give me your email address. PM me over at the Forums, or however you feel okay with sharing the address.

  9. Yes, Ryoma did use a handgun.

    I will PM you at the forums because I would love to read the Brown article. Thanks.