Sunday, May 10, 2009

Weapons Control in 8th Century Japan

A History of Japan to 1334, was written in 1958 by George Sansom who on page 104 tells us, “By 720 . . . there remained – especially in the northern provinces of Mutsu and Dewa – a very large number of turbulent people, including Japanese who had thrown in their lot with the Ainu. These irreconcilables made frequent raids upon settlements to the south of their own encampments. They were stubborn fighters, and the military forces sent to help the settlers were unable to hold them in check.

“The reason for this failure was that the military provisions of the Taiho code were quite inadequate. They had introduced a scheme of national military service under which all males from twenty to sixty years of age were liable to be called up for military duty, either in the provincial forces or in the guard regiments stationed at the capital, or in special frontier forces formed to operate against the Emishi (‘barbarians’) or against attacks from the mainland, which at that time were not thought impossible. But surprisingly for a people with so belligerent a tradition, the ruling class in the eighth century was predominantly civilian in outlook, preferring compromise to violence and, no doubt owing to the influence of Buddhism, averse to bloodshed. In 701 the possession of weapons by private persons had been forbidden, the uniform of the officers of state included no deadly implements to symbolize their powers, and the profession of arms was not respected. . . .”

“. . . During the eighth century the shortage of trained men was such that the frontier forces were unable to hold back the Ainu raiders, and the government was obliged to introduce new military measures. In 792, under the Emperor Kammu, the principle of universal military service (which had never been fully applied) was dropped and the government of each province was left to form its own force by conscripting able-bodied young men . . . But this system never really came into force, and there was no organization responsible for keeping the peace in the name of the Crown. . . Contemporary accounts give a picture of disorder and violence, of the depredations of armed bands, so threatening that the farmers were obliged to arm in their own defence . . . .”

“It was in such conditions that there began to arise a class of private warriors which in course of time was to dominate the whole country. . . .”


What was going on in 8th century Japan, and does it have any applicability for the US? To imagine something comparable happening here we might need to assume that an “American Pacifist Party” took control of the government. I have debated many of these pacifists and they don’t like my taking them to extremes. Of course they would defend their nation, homes and family, they tell me, but their mind set would be completely different from such “warmongers” as myself. So something like that seems to have been going on, a government largely pacifistic was responsible for defending Japan against the depredations of the Ainu and the disgruntled Japanese who lived in the North. We read that they didn’t do a good job of it, but they seem to have kept on in this fashion for nearly 100 years. Finally in 792 Kammu tried to correct matters by putting the military on a more reasonable footing but it seems to have been too late.

What happened back then wasn’t like what might happen in a modern day authoritarian regime. I described Russia’s current concern about guns in But Russia isn’t trying to turn everyone into a pacifist. The underlying implication insofar as gun control is concerned is that Russia is saying the individual citizen doesn’t need a gun because we will defend him. Whether that sort of system would work is debatable, but it isn’t the mindset of 8th century Japan. The Japanese weren’t quite saying that they wouldn’t defend their citizenry, but they were no longer practicing the use of arms. If no one had weapons, if no one was used to them, what sort of a soldier would such a person make if he was suddenly called into service?

We know that the Japanese in the 8th century didn’t do well against the Ainu, but this ought to have been expected. If a nation takes the official position that it doesn’t like violence or war and then creates laws that reflect that position, it shouldn’t surprise them if their military forces lose effectiveness. And yet they probably didn’t realize that. If they hated war, they probably didn’t study it. They didn’t realize that an effective military force must be well trained in the use of weaponry. Its individual soldiers must take pride in their profession, not be ashamed of it; so when the official position was to be ashamed of the military profession that sentiment obviously “trickled down.”

So what happened next? The Azumabito or “Men of the East” showed up. I’m not sure who they were. They seem to be Japanese but they weren’t subject to the government. They were highly trained fighting men and the Japanese citizens embraced them as saviors. “. . . their praises were sung in early Japanese literature.” The arrival of the Azumabito seems to mark the end of the Japanese pacifistic experiment.

We can see here that the Japanese attempted to be pacifistic, as far as possible, as far as the pacifists I have debated would like to go. Their experiment lasted longer than the Socialist experiment in the USSR. We know that it didn’t work. The system was authoritarian. It had the power to enforce its will. Unfortunately, the administrators of this system didn’t know what they were doing – or rather they knew, but didn’t know it wouldn’t work. They had theories and ideals and they put them into practice, but from a practical sense, a sense they didn’t understand, they were engaging in experimentation. When this system failed, failed over a long period of time, a new more effective system came along to replace it.

I believe that the more that pacifism is forced on a nation, the more warlike it will ultimately become. Rather than retain a reasonable, effective, fighting force, 8th century Japan sought pacifism insofar as they thought practical, It was tried until the people were sick of it. The Japanese feared for their lives. The Azumabito came to their rescue and were treated much as Patton’s forces were treated in France in 1944.

I would never say that pacifists don’t mean well. I believe they do, but their ideas don’t work. As a species we don’t fit their theories. I’m sure that if those kindly 8th century Japanese administrators could be brought forward in time and observe that a reaction to their ineffective polices gave rise to the Bushido and contributed to the creation of one of the most warlike nations the world has seen, they would be astounded.

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