Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, June 13, 2016

Historial Accounts of European vs Japanese Swordsmen

Over at, there is an interesting post comparing European vs Japanese swordsmen of the 16th through19th centuries, including contemporary accounts of clashes. 

It's a fascinating topic. The full post may be read here.

There’s a popular, long-standing debate on the Internet as to which kind of  sword is better, or at least which would win out over the other: a Japanese katana verses a European blade (the weapon varies according to the interests of the debaters – longswords, rapiers, etc.).  Similar discussions theorize as to who would win a fight between a samurai or a European fencer.  Debaters line up on both sides and argue that their chosen weapon or fighting style is superior.

The problem with both these viewpoints is that they tend to presume an almost mystical quality or superiority inherent in either the sword or the wielder, who they believe will generally (if not always) win when matched against the other.  This ignores the human condition. No matter what country to go to, you’ll find high quality weapons and junk;  master weapon smiths and poor ones; talented fencers and what we would charitably refer to today as “cannon fodder”.  Depending on which combination of time period, gear, armour, level of skill, and — to be honest — the unforeseeable vagaries of luck, occur,  it’s impossible to know how any particular

Two excellent articles which take a hard, objective look at weapon vs. weapon are:  Longsword and Katana Considered and Katana vs. Rapier: Another Fantasy Worth Considering by John Clements of ARMA.

Rather than argue intangibles, I thought it would be more interesting to explore historical fact and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.  This by looking at cases of actual combat as well as period comments about encounters between Europeans and Japanese  from 1542 through to the beginning of the modern age when swords became ceremonial objects.

History of European / Japanese contact

Many find it surprising to discover that the first period of open contact between Europe and Japan lasted a little more a century, from the first contact in 1542 (a Portuguese merchant vessel blown ashore in Japan by a storm), to the institution of the Sokaku (Closed Country) Edicts in 1635 which closed Japan to Europeans, allowed only limited European trade at two ports, and forbade Japanese to travel.

It would be more than 300 years before open trade with the West would be re-established in the late 19th century.

During this first century of openness, it was the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch who had a lock trading in much of Asia, and the majority of contact with the Japanese.   Many European sailors, merchants and soldiers traveled to Japan; most of these carried weapons at all times, rapiers being the weapon of choice.  Dueling was common in Europe, for any — or even no — reason, to the point that there were fears of losing the young men of an entire generation.  Laws were passed forbidding dueling;  laws which were, in the main, ignored.

A similar situation existed in Japan, and until the Sword Hunt of 1588 everyone could carry weapons; an affront to personal honour could only be expunged by blood.  The Imperial Regent (Kampaku Toyotomi Hideyoshi) instituted this Sword Hunt to secure his reign, ordering the confiscation of weapons from anyone other than members of the military, followed by several edicts meant to restrain banditry and  prevent peasant revolts, forbidding  the wearing of bladed weapons except by samurai or the military.  Within a few decades this class system had become part of the fabric of Japanese life.   Even then there were exceptions, as certain classes — such as merchants — were allowed the use of weapons to defend themselves and their merchandise from bandits.

It should also be noted that the Japanese weren’t sitting passively at home during this period either.  Wako, or pirates, were common in Asian waters between the 13th and 16th centuries.  Red Seal ships — Japanese armed trading vessels, licensed to trade between Japan, China, Korea and other Asian ports — sailed regularly from roughly 1600 to 1635; that some may have also indulged in a little piracy is a matter of discussion.  Japanese mercenaries were used in various areas of Asia by both the Dutch and the English as part of the Namban Trade, Europeans being known as Nanban bōeki (Southern Barbarians): History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800 p223.

Readers of fiction will recognize this period as the setting for the novel Shogun by James Clavell.  While the main protagonist of the story is the English sailor John Blackthorne, the story itself is loosely based on the real-life adventures of William Adams.

(Cook Ding's Kitchen had a post on Will Adams here.)

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