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Japan’s Matchlock Militia

Posted in History, Oddities, Weapons on Monday, 31 January 2011

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A Japanese town has its own ceremonial army – based on a weapon which became obsolete in Europe centuries ago

Think of ancient weapons in Japan, and the first thing that comes to mind is the gleaming Samurai sword, honed to razor-like sharpness. The matchlock arquebus is almost certainly the last thing you would associate with Japan. Yet Yone Zawa, an old castle town set high in the mountains of Honshu, the country’s largest island, can boast a unit of matchlock fusiliers.

The story of Japan’s matchlock militia began in 1543, when Portuguese traders landed on Tanegashima, a small island lying off the southern tip of the main island of Kyushu. They brought with them trade, Christianity – and the matchlock.

The Japanese warlords had never seen anything quite like it before. They bought several from the Portuguese, and had them carefully copied.

A century later, the Japanese decided that they had had enough of Western influences, and ended all trade with Europe. This state of affairs was to last until 1854, when the American sailor, Commodore Perry, brought a flotilla of gunboats to Japan and forced trade upon the country.

Commodore Perry arriving in Japan by Dan Escott

Commodore Perry arriving in Japan by Dan Escott

To his amazement, Perry found that some of the Japanese troops were armed with a collection of beautifully made and highly accurate matchlocks. During the centuries of isolation, they had redesigned the matchlock into a long and slender gun, often carefully carved and inlaid with silver.

The Japanese matchlocks were, of course, no match for Perry’s rifles and cannon, yet they were a tremendous advance on the short, stumpy and often highly inaccurate weapons originally sold to them by the Portuguese.

Japan lost no time in catching up with the West, but the old traditions still live on in Yone Zawa. The fusiliers – all private citizens of the town – welcome any opportunity to don their uniforms, shoulder their matchlocks, and give an exhibition of the skills of a bygone age.

This edited article originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 901 published on 28 April 1979. Click on a picture to find out more about licensing images for commercial or personal/educational use. We are also able to license textual material. Please contact us for details.

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