Japanese Matchlock Myths – Debunked.

Most of you guys know I am more of a specialist in ancient Japanese history. Although, I do occasionally write about a more modern stuff, it is usually after I visit somewhere and can get some inspiration from wandering around and exploring the place. However, I like to read and learn about many things in Japanese history, but I have to admit my knowledge of guns in Japan is a little limited. So….

My friend Arthur Goetz from, https://www.facebook.com/groups/japanesematchlocks, has kindly allowed me to use his post. He is much more knowledgeable about guns in Japan than I am. I hope you enjoy it.

Matchlock Myths – Debunked

1. Samurai thought guns were dishonorable!!!

I’ve never seen any actual evidence of this presented. The closest thing I have ever found are lamentations of the death of Mori Nagayoshi. An ill-tempered samurai commander, he led a charge wearing a conspicuous white jimbaori and was subsequently shot in the head by an ashigaru gunner. Other than feelings of nostalgia for older forms of warfare, there isn’t an indication of the gun being “dishonorable”. Many samurai actively pursued studies of firearms, and really just viewed it as a “martial arts” weapon (for lack of a better term) alongside the spear, bow, sword, etc. Further proof of this is the Satsuma rebellion; while the movie “The Last Samurai” portrays this as a traditionalist movement and shows the rebels refusing to use guns, this is not the case at all. In fact one of the first targets these rebels went after was a military warehouse to acquire their more modern firearms. Matchlocks were also used by them, and it is part of the reason there are so few Satsuma matchlocks available now. There is one story that the last few surviving rebels at the battle of Shiroyama made one last symbolic sword charge once the battle was lost, which is probably what led to the romanticization of the whole thing.

Early samurai armed with spears, bows and naginata.

2. Matchlock production was made illegal in the Edo-Period/Giving up the gun.

Another ludicrous myth, and I have no idea how this one got pushed. It seems to in part be related to the Sword Hunt of 1586, and also seems to go in hand with gun control efforts post-WW2. Regardless, the matchlocks you see available in collections are almost all Edo-Period examples. Except for a literal handful of surviving guns from before then, everything you see more or less is Edo. In fact, many gun production centers didn’t reach their peak until the Edo-period.

3. The matchlocks first arrived on Tanegashima island in 1542/43 and were brought by some marooned Portuguese adventurers…

I include this here because it is shared as absolute fact by people all the time. The truth of the matter is we don’t know for sure if all the details of this story are true, or even if this for sure was the first introduction of matchlocks to Japan. Or if it was the only introduction. There is a strong possibility that there were multiple introductions around the same time in different parts of Japan from different sources, and very little can be said with absolute certainty. I have my own theories on the matter, which I will happily share in the comments if anyone is interested, but not in this initial post. It’s safe to say “The legend is that…”, but saying “This is exactly how it happened” is detrimental to the study of gun history in Japan. Further, chinese handgonnes were introduced well before the matchlock, but never caught on. We have records that they were presented to the Ashikaga shogunate, and a demonstration was performed.

4. Nagashino I’ve written a short essay on this one, but here are the basics.

Nagashino is touted as the moment that changed Japanese warfare forever, and that guns were used to destroy a Takeda cavalry charge. That Oda Nobunaga was this dishonorable westernized demon lord who was the first person in Japan to take advantage of firearm technology and use it to wipe out a traditional army. This myth was exported to the West through Kurosawa’s famous film “Kagemusha”. Well, here’s reality, and it’s a lot less interesting. Nobunaga was not the great innovator of firearms usage; that title falls to the Saika-shu, Negoro-shu, Nagashima, Ikko-Ikki, etc., who used coordinated matchlock fire to succesfully defend their fortifications numerous times against Nobunaga’s incursions. He learned it from them. These were buddhist insurrectionists who used unconventional forms of warfare to great effect. Nobunaga of course took notice of this. It’s touted that at Nagashino, Nobunaga had Ieyasu select “3,000” of his best gunners for the defense of the field fortifications. This is an Edo-Period transcription error, and only 1500 were actually present. In ratio to the rest of the army, this was actually a far smaller ratio of gunners than was average. The weather that day was rainy/foggy, and this would have caused a host of issues with using the guns. The Takeda forces were not stupid, and upon seeing the fortifications, they dismounted. Their reconnaissance work before the battle was shoddy to say the least, and the record time that these positions were constructed in took them off guard. They advanced with multiple waves on foot, and did manage to break through the first line of defenses, but the Oda/Tokugawa spearmen held their ground and won the day. Gunners played a very, very small role in this battle. But a dramatic, foolhardy cavalry charge straight into lines of “dishonorable” gunners is a more interesting story, and so that’s the one people have gone with since the 1700’s.

Note: Here`s my article on Nagashino. https://rekishinihon.com/2016/02/15/nagashino-battlefield-and-museum/

Shitaragahara reinactment

5. Guns completely changed Japanese warfare + Bonus Myth: Guns replaced the bow.

I’ll try and keep this one short. Guns didn’t completely change Japanese warfare, but rather contributed to a process of change that was already well in motion. The use of ashigaru armies and the development of castles were all well under way. Many say “because of guns, all of a sudden peasant conscripts were put at the very front of armies, taking away that lauded position from samurai who were always first into battle!”. However, the transition of samurai from being individual warriors fighting duels with one another on the field to being officers commanding professional soldiers had already nearly reached its zenith by the time guns showed up. Guns were used in offensive situations, but where they really shine is defensive use. This made castles that much more difficult to assault. Even Musashi in the Book of Five Rings discusses this, saying that when defending a position, the gun is as good as it gets, but becomes useless once swords are crossed. Two examples of when offensive use of the gun were decisive are the invasions of Korea and Okinawa respectively. In both cases, Chinese style castles were what the samurai were up against. These castles were designed for older systems of warfare, and the ramparts did not provide sufficient cover against firearms. Because of this, samurai commanders quickly realized that mass gun fire was the best means of clearing the walls before an assault. Finally… the bow. This one is frustrating. It’s a myth perpetuated by archers still. They argue that the decline of Japanese archery in the Edo-period was due to firearms, but nearly all martial arts declined in one form or another in this time due to the transition of the warrior class from professional warfighters to bureaucrats. Many of the warfare schools declined, and what became popular was the Edo-period equivalent of mall dojos catering to peace time needs. Bows were never fully replaced by guns, and in fact were used in tandem with them. Behind the gunners, there was almost always a line of archers that provided bombardment fire to help cover the gunners as they reloaded. When looking at casualty tallies, the bow was always king. It accounts for a higher percentage of deaths than any other weapon on the battlefields of feudal Japan, even after the introduction of guns. Further proof is the high number of archers still present in Japanese armies at the end of the Edo-period. Look at any of the early photography, and you’ll likely see more photos of samurai with bows than guns.

There are many other smaller myths and bits of disinformation out there, but here are some of the main ones. I’ve brought this up in the past, but I felt since we have so many new members it might be good to talk about it in a little bit more depth than I have in the past. Ask questions in the comments, get some discussion going! Is any of this information new to you? Any myths you want to debunk? Anything you’ve been told that you’re now wondering whether is myth or not?

Let’s learn together!


  1. So acknowledging that I’m about a year late on this post, I’d be very interested to hear what your theories are on how matchlocks were first introduced to Japan. I only really have a basic understanding of feudal Japan and its various facets at the moment, but I appreciate articles like this that help to separate the real history from the myths–it makes it easier to get into periods of history like this without having to constantly wonder if what I’m hearing is the real history or just a western generalization.


    1. Hi, thankyou for your message. I think comprehensively saying that the first guns came from Tanegashima is incorrect. Around the middle of the 16th century, a large number of guns had been introduced to western Japan, which includes Tanegashima-island. Modern studies show they came from Southeast Asia and not Europe, and the wako (pirates) who were armed foreign-trade merchant groups and active around the seas of Southeast Asia at that time were responsible for their introduction. I hope this answers your question. Cheers.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, found your blog while looking some informations about japanese matchlocks and perhaps you’ll be able to dispel my doubts. As far as I know there is misconception about Japan producing more matchlocks than entire Europe in 16th century. But when we look at producion costs: importing bullets(no domestic production), importing gunpowder(domestic prod. 1560s), importing saltpeter(domestic prod. 1570s) and revenue of daimyos before Edo period it seems very unlikely. Do you know how many matchlocks were produced in Japan at the end of 16th century or how many matchlocks gunmakers produced annualy(f.ex.Kunimoto)? I’d be glad if you could recommend me any further readings.


  3. Arthur sent me back a message. “These estimates are based on the observations of European travelers in Japan at the time of Sekigahara. While it’s not truly empirical data, it is an interesting observation. It also does not seem too farfetched when we look at the proliferation of firearms at this time in Japan compared to their usage in Europe. It must be kept in mind that pike formations were still dominant in European warfare with firearms being used only in a supporting role to pike formations. Japanese warfare in contrast always placed an emphasis on ranged weapons, with ranged weapons (i.e. bows and later firearms) accounting for a majority of inflicted casualties.

    Bullets were certainly made in Japan from early on; importation of lead however would have been a staple alongside saltpeter. Production of gunpowder predates 1560, but saltpeter production seems to come in later than the 1570’s from what I’ve seen.

    Of all the places where firearms usage really blossomed, Kishuu in the early days is without a doubt in the lead. Sakai next door was the largest producer without a doubt. Both regions had huge amounts of foreign trade going on, including importation of Namban Tetsu (i.e. foreign steel). The regionality of Japanese firearms also has its roots well before 1600 due to Sakai, Negoro-ji, etc. sending smiths to different regions to help them establish local firearm production.

    Kunitomo claims a lineage going back to 1544, but in reality we don’t truly see Kunitomo come into its own until the end of the Momoyama period. I could go into more on this, but it’s a bit of a controversial topic.

    What is of the utmost importance is specificity and talking about particular regions and the armies that came from them. It’s quite possible if not likely the number of firearms rivalled what was in Europe if not exceeding it due to a variety of factors. Afterall, when we see foreign orders from around Southeast Asia for firearms from Japan, not the least of which European trading companies, that should be a strong clue that there was something extraordinary going on there.”

    Liked by 1 person

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