Japanese History Guide: Why Firearms Spread Quickly Among Samurai in the Warring States Period

Some samurai warriors are lined up with rifles.

Craftsmanship commonly seen in Japanese swords and rifles

In 1543, Portuguese merchants introduced rifles to Japan. They expected firearms to be one of their hot exports to Japan in the future but soon found that their plan had failed. In Japan at that time, there were many swordsmiths highly skilled in metal working. The swordsmiths in the area that Portuguese merchants visited mastered the production of rifles very quickly, within only a year or so.

Making matters worse for the merchants, the manufacturing techniques soon spread to swordsmiths in other areas across Japan, and the quality of Japanese rifles became superior to that of European ones. Furthermore, the total number of rifles in Japan in around 1600 (the age of Japanese civil wars) was more than 60,000. It exceeded the total number of rifles in all the European countries at that time. Samurais may have used rifles more than you imagine.

Japan’s forte to master and improve what is imported from overseas

Firearms could be a Japanese major export item, but the regimes at that time decided to close the country. I personally think it was a wise judgement to keep a distance from the dog-eat-dog world in the Age of Discovery, though. Anyway, the similar thing happened in the wooden furniture industry. As I wrote before, the chair culture was introduced to Japan only 150 years ago, but what happened to wooden furniture was different from that of firearms.

The wooden furniture industry grew rapidly but soon gave way to heavy industries such as car manufacturing. Once, there were many good woodworking machine manufacturers in Japan, but they stopped their businesses or changed their businesses to metal working machine manufacturing, not having tried to export. As a result, the woodworking machine market is now monopolized by Italian manufacturers. Ironically, the heart of such Italian woodworking CNC machines consists most of Japanese precision equipment, though.

Japanese furniture craftsmanship is close to a fateful crisis

The wooden furniture industry is not and has not been major in Japan. Making matters worse, as society becomes polarized, the Japanese furniture market share is grabbed more by global players: Italian brands for the high-end furniture; other Asian manufacturers for the low-end one. We are likely to lose the game, but won’t give up till the end and will find our way into the global market, learning from past experiences.

A corporate logo, the letters of C and H are combined to look like a tree in a circle

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.