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7     Japanese offensive and defensive weapons and warfare

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1. We use swords; the Japanese use cutlasses.

As one might imagine, given all the dueling and warfare that took place in the sixteenth century,[491] Europeans made use of a variety of swords, ranging from the huge German zweihänder to various types of rapiers or “long-swords” such as the espada ropera, which was favored by elites. European swords by and large were double-edged, absolutely straight, and had a sharp point. Correspondingly, swordplay was mostly a matter of stabbing and thrusting. The Japanese swordsman, by contrast, was intent on decapitation and his katana was what in English we would term a cutlass: approximately sixty centimeters, single-edged, slicing sharp, and slightly curved.[492] Because point and edge are covered elsewhere (Chapter 1, #21 and Chapter 7, #7), Frois may have been focusing here on straight vs. curved. Note that today most people probably find the differences between a sword and a cutlass meaningless. However, in Frois’ day Europe and Japan were extremely bellicose and both societies had for centuries imparted privilege and status to aristocrats and warriors bearing swords.[493]

2. The handle of our swords fits the size of our hand; theirs is over one span[494] in length, and sometimes up to three.

Frois clearly has in mind the civilian sword or rapier that was worn by European elites (relatively light-weight; quick to unsheathe; great for dueling or fending off a thief). As Frois noted in Chapter 1 (#34a), the Japanese cutlass was gripped with both hands. Placement of the hands varied depending on one’s technique and power, much as a baseball player varies his grip of a baseball bat (i.e. some like to “choke up”).

3. Our men carry their swords in baldrics; their men have a hook on their sash es.

The heavier long sword used by European military required a sling-style belt, or baldric, that hung over one shoulder. The low side of the baldric tended to be lower than the Japanese obi, so that European swords often hung way down the thigh. Although the Japanese katana originally was carried on a hook on the obi (as Frois suggests here), by 1585 most Japanese men were tucking their swords directly under or between the wraps of the obi (what Frois termed a sash).[495]

4. Our men wear a sword on one side and a dagger on the other; the Japanese always wear their sword and dagger on the left.

By the time Frois left Europe (1548) the parrying dagger was a regular accompaniment to the dueling sword or rapier. As Capwell points out, fighting with dagger and sword amounted to a new, fearsome fighting style; it also created an opportunity to indulge in yet more fashion accessorizing.[496]

The “dagger” mentioned here by Frois was, in the Japanese case, more like a small cutlass. Because the Japanese themselves sometimes referred to this smaller cutlass, or adaga, as a dagger (wakizashi), Frois is reflecting rather than creating a confusing nomenclature. Generally, the sword or katana was for battle and the dagger or wakizashi for self-defense (a warrior going into a building left his katana on a rack and kept his dagger with him.[497])

Apparently the Japanese did not always wear their adaga to one side, since Avila Giron[498] wrote that it was worn crosswise over the stomach.

5. Our daggers are short; some of theirs are more than half the length of their cutlass[499]

Again, Frois uses dagger to refer to the Japanese adaga, thereby creating a contrast that only makes nominal sense and which is clarified below (see #11).

6. On our swords we hang our gloves; they hang a cord that serves no purpose.

The gloves frequently worn by Europeans during swordplay otherwise hung from the sword handle. During a military campaign the Japanese “sword knot” functioned to secure a scabbard to the outside of the obi. As noted, by Frois’ time most Japanese tucked their swords inside their obis, so the “sword knot” was largely a vestige of former times.

7. The people of Europe are accustomed to thrusting during swordfights; the Japanese never do so.

The most famous swordsman in Japanese history, Miyamato Musashi, who was born in 1584, included thrusting strokes in his “Water Book” or second volume of The Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho), a treatise on sword fighting and “the proper way of the warrior.” Still, the stabbing or thrusting that is characteristic of Western fencing[500] seemingly was never a first resort in Japan. In 1560, Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu founded a school of swordsmanship that standardized fighting techniques. Shigenobu emphasized mastery of fluid motion, self-defense and, if necessary, killing an opponent with one swift stroke of the sword.[501]

8. Among us, swords of good quality iron are given to lords as gifts; in Japan, they give them wooden swords with scabbards made of cloth.

European swordsmiths of the sixteenth century in places such as Milan crafted swords that were not only beautiful to look at—decorated with gold, silver, enamels and jewels—but wonderfully balanced and highly effective at stabbing and cutting. Such swords made great gifts for those seeking to endear themselves to a rich merchant, prince, or king.[502]

For almost a thousand years before Frois’ time, the rulers of Japan received gifts of wooden swords called tsukuridachi, kidachi or kodachi. These swords were worn on mostly ceremonial occasions. As Frois points out, the swords were carried in special “cord bags” (tsurubukuro) that resembled quivers (one Japanese dictionary defines them as “bags that were not really bags”). The Japanese also had bokuto, blunt wooden swords that served for exercise and were sometimes used in matches between heads of schools. (Made of heavy oak, they could kill.) They also had the equivalent (while also opposite) of the Euro-American square-edged foil, which was post-Frois. These tubular swords, or shinai, are made of strips of bamboo that are bound at intervals with strips of leather. They produce an extraordinarily pleasant sound when they collide. Even today, one-on-one shinai matches are part of physical education (kendo classes for both sexes) in all public schools in Japan. Because “xinai” appears in the 1604 Japanese-Portuguese dictionary, they probably predate Frois.

Frois overlooked a perhaps more interesting “ceremonial weapon,” the hamaya, which are demon-destroying arrows with no head that ordinary people still acquire at shrines as talismans to undo a bad event or year and to insure happiness in the future.

9. We place nothing more than a sword in our scabbards; the Japanese place a knife in one side of theirs, and in the other a kougai that serves no purpose.

The knife mentioned here by Frois apparently is a pocket knife of sorts called a kogatana. The kougai, which is almost as old as the wooden swords mentioned above, was almost as long as a chopstick, about twice as thick and rounded at one end. Often it was made of ivory or silver, and at least as far back as the eleventh century nobles used the kougai to scratch their scalp or re-arrange their hair after putting on their armor. By Frois’ time the kougai was largely superfluous. Subsequently, women adopted it as a “hair pin.” (The kougai worn by women generally were made of gold, silver or tortoise-shell.) During the peaceful Edo period, the kougai was split in two and became wari-kôgai, portable chopsticks for samurai.

10. If our swords are of high quality, they are very costly, even when new; in Japan the new ones have no value, and it is only very old swords that are expensive.

The Japanese still revere swords “with a history,” swords that have proven themselves, particularly in battle. Japanese sword technology reached its apogee in the early fourteenth century and by the sixteenth century the secrets of the old sword smiths had been lost.[503] Thus, very old swords often were worth more than new ones.

Frois may never have heard Japanese legends or stories associated with their valued swords.[504] Even still, you would think that he would have appreciated how legends and stories might have mattered, given the famous swords of European epic heroes such as Arthur, Charlemagne, or El Cid.

11. Among us, one carries at most one sword and one dagger; the Japanese sometimes wear two swords and a wakizashi on their belt.

Generally speaking, more Japanese men wore three blades than did their European counterparts. With two “swords” and a wakizashi, we might assume that the latter is the dagger. Actually, it is hard to say, for the wakazashi had a cutting blade one to two feet in length, while the small “swords” (kogatana, tanto) had blades sticking out less than a foot beyond their blade-guards.

12. Our knives generally have wooden handles; Japanese knives have handles made of copper or other metals.

The Japanese knives are the “small swords” already mentioned.

13. When we cut with a knife, the movement is usually either toward the body or from left to right; the Japanese always cut away from the body.

While Europeans and Americans learn not to point a gun at themselves or others because one never knows when it might be loaded, the Japanese have traditionally taken great care when handling sharp blades; they neither whittle toward themselves nor when examining a sword in company allow the cutting side of the blade to face others.

14. Our prayer beads, as well as our crosses, are always turned on a lathe; the Japanese frequently make theirs with a knife, and these turn out just as well as those made using a lathe.

Small lathes, often consisting of a hand-held bow that was used to spin a piece of wood that simultaneously was carved, have great antiquity in various parts of the world, including Europe. During the sixteenth century pole lathes also were common throughout Europe. The lathe amounted to a treadle-operated rope or pulley that rapidly moved a piece of wood back and forth in a reciprocating rather than a continuous, spinning movement.

The Japanese had lathes as early as at least the eight century. Between 764–770 CE they were put to work producing a million miniature pagodas containing Buddhist incantations, which the Empress Shoken distributed to ten monasteries.[505] Even so, making religious items by hand was itself a form of devotion (not unlike the santeros of New Mexico who are inspired to carve wooden images of particular saints). People carved everything from statues of the Goddess of Mercy to prayer beads. Because the focus of the chapter is weapons and war, Frois presumably was not deprecating Japanese technology (an absence of lathes) but praising the quality of Japanese blades and the skill of Japanese workers.

15. We generally cut our nails using scissors; the Japanese always cut theirs with a knife.

As discussed in Chapter 1#28, the Japanese seem not to have had much use for scissors and preferred quality knives for cutting things like cloth or their nails.

16. The leaves and twigs that we gather from trees to adorn gifts, the Japanese make by hand using their kogatanas.

The Japanese did not simply whittle replicas. Their foliage, if that is what it stood for, resembles the “tinder sticks” made by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, but the shavings are much finer and longer, so they curl like a ribbon. This art form may have originated with the Ainu, who are perhaps the world’s most prolific shaving artists.

17. Our lances have long, broad blades; the blades of their lances are short and narrow.

The lances carried by mounted European cavalry often had spear points that looked something like the ace of spades (Frois’ “broad blades”). Charging in formation, such cavalrymen were very effective in shattering and breaching enemy infantry lines.

The Japanese had various lances and Frois focuses here on the most common variety (yari), which had a double-edged blade from twelve to twenty-nine inches in length. If thrusting through armor or simply stabbing a body is the main intent (the yari was not thrown), a short and narrow blade is quite efficient. The yari was standard issue for Japanese infantry (ashigaru) during the “Warring States period” (1467–1568).[506]

18. Our lances are smooth, [the shaft being] the natural color of the wood; theirs have either lacquered or gilded shafts.

Originally, Japanese spear shafts were made of natural wood, but during the sixteenth-century it was common to cover the wood with black lacquer, mother-of-pearl, or vermillion; the last was retricted to those who had distinguished themselves in battle.[507]

19. We use halberds; they use naginata shape d like a sickle.

European halberds were ferocious looking infantry weapons: spears with a sharp point as well as an axe-like head (angled in such a way as to add some slice to the hack) that also featured a prong or hook jutting out the back, which was effective in pulling horsemen to the ground.

The naginata was more like a curved sword on a long shaft. Traditional varieties, which feature large blades, look a lot like sickles. During the Edo era, when the naginata became the official weapon of noblewomen, the blade shrunk to knife length and became even more curved. (Japanese “Easterns” often include scenes where naginata are whirled around like huge batons in defense of lords and castles.)

20. We use bombards; they do not have them, but they do use matchlocks.

The bombard originally was a stone thrower but came to mean a cannon or mortar, which used gunpowder to shoot cut stone balls or lead shot weighing up to 200 pounds. Cannon and artillery (more mobile cannons) proved particularly valuable in siege warfare in fifteenth century Europe and were used with great success by Portugal’s King Afonso in his “conquest” of Morocco.[508] The effective use of cannon contributed to the end of the medieval castle as we know it and the appearance of “star forts,” which themselves used strategically placed cannon and a system of cross firing to counter artillery bombardment and other siege tactics.[509]

Although the Japanese were very quick to adopt European firearms,[510] they were decidedly slower to manufacture and make use of cannon.[511] Perhaps this lack of interest was due, in part, to Japanese fortifications, which often were temporary constructions of brush or wood.[512] That said, in 1576 Nobunaga began construction of Azuchi Castle, which had massive stone walls and was described by Frois as comparable to the greatest buildings in Europe.[513] Subsequent castles that were inspired by Azuchi (e.g. Osaka, Fushimi, Himeji) and erected by Nobunaga’s successor, Hideyoshi, were likewise on a grand scale.[514]

21. We carry our powder flask on a shoulder belt; they carry theirs around the neck like a reliquary.

The Japanese carried gun powder in a horn called a “mouth-drug-holder” (kuchigusuri-ire), or in a pouch (literally “torso-rampant”). Both dangled from the neck but were secured to the chest to keep them from bouncing around.

22. Our bows are medium in size and made of wood; theirs are very large and made of bamboo.

Frois is apparently contrasting the equally destructive English long bow (developed in Wales in the twelfth-century but then embraced by armies throughout Europe because of its armor-piercing abilities) and the still longer Japanese compound bow (shinge-to-shumi), which was used by Japanese nobles or samurai. European long bows were up to seven feet long and were ideally made of Spanish yew, which naturally has the qualities of a composite (hard core and springy outer layers). Because it took years to learn to effectively use a long bow, it was largely replaced during the fifteenth century by the less demanding and more powerful crossbow, which, by the time Frois wrote, had been displaced by the harquebus.[515]

The Japanese shinge-to-shumi was a true compound bow with a wood core (generally of oak) that was sandwiched between bamboo laminates that were secured with glue and rattan bindings. The entire bow also was lacquered for water-proofing.[516]

The way Japanese archers held their bows is as interesting as the bows themselves. Unlike European and all other archers we know of who grip their bows in the middle, the Japanese gripped theirs one third of the way up from the bottom of the bow, which apparently made it easier to shoot from horseback.[517] The former cultural importance of this bow is suggested by the bow dance that is still done today by the Sumo grand champion.

23. Our arrows are of wood; theirs are made of bamboo, just as their bows are.

The bamboo fighting arrows used by the Japanese generally were a meter long and thrice fletched with bird feathers.[518] Although the Japanese used various types of arrow heads, including some for piercing armor, apparently they never copied Ainu arrows, which incorporated poison in the hollow of the bamboo shaft adjoining the tip.

24. Among us, archers remain clothed when they shoot their arrows; in Japan an archer removes half his kimono in order to leave one arm bare.

The left arm is removed from the kimono, exposing the left shoulder and some of the chest. With practice, a Japanese archer could “disrobe” in a split second. As “nudity” is still a significant Western pre-occupation, many Westerners who visit Japan today would no doubt still find it strange to see people lined up at a kyudo gallery, all with one arm/shoulder exposed (except for the arm guard).

25. Among us, no one utters a sound when shooting a bow; the Japanese have to let out a big cry when they release an arrow.

“Our” side needs no explanation; “theirs” is remarkable. This sudden loud cry also characterizes Japanese sword fighting (see #51 below) and the modern martial arts of judo and karate. The standard explanation is that this is done to disrupt an opponent’s concentration.[519] The Japanese refer to the shout or sharp cry as kiai, literally “spirit-meet.” To put kiai into something (kiai-o irete) is “to do something with spirit.”

26. Among us, we use shields, [including] gilt roundels[520] and oval leather shields; the Japanese use flat wooden shields that resemble doors.

Europeans for centuries used shields of varying sizes, including a small “buckler” when battling with swords. They might also be used by elites in a pre-arranged duel or in fencing classes, but they were too big and cumbersome to be part of elite “dress.”[521]

The Japanese did in fact have small shields, but these were not ordinarily used by samurai, who, as mentioned, used both hands when wielding their long sword, or katana. The door-like shields that caught the attention of Europeans like Frois were deployed at the outset of battles to receive volleys of arrows from opposing archers. With the adoption of firearms, these “wall-shields,” as they are known in Japanese, were replaced by bundles of bamboo, which more effectively deflected musket balls.[522] A variant of the wall-shield survives in the five- or six-foot long narrow shields used today by riot police in Japan as well as in Korea and China.

27. Our armor is very heavy; Japanese armor is very light.

The chain mail and more expensive plate armor worn by European soldiers was notoriously heavy; often soldiers and armored horses died in battle after falling and not being able to right themselves. Japanese armor was made from composite materials and was relatively light and flexible as compared with European armor.

28. Our suits of armor are all made of steel; theirs are made of plates of horn or leather laced together with braided silk.

Japanese lamina, or plates (to use Frois’ technically correct term), overlapped like shingles or the scales of a fish. Europe had something similar to this called a coat of mail (as opposed to chain mail). Japan, however, is said to have produced more varieties of mail than the rest of the world combined. In this regard, Frois’ sole mention of horn and leather is misleading. The Japanese used a variety of other materials, including iron, steel, hide, paper, brass, and shark skin, which usually were coated with thick lacquer.[523]

29. The tuft of feathers on our helmets are a very beautiful brown or white;[524] the Japanese use the longest tail feathers from roosters.

Based on distichs #30 and #31 below, which speak of round helmets with visors, Frois appears to be referring here to the armet, a closed helmet with a two-piece visor that was popular in sixteenth-century Europe. (Most of us are perhaps more familiar with the morion worn by Spanish conquistadors, an open helmet with a crest that ran front to back, which was sometimes decorated with feathers.) The armet had a small, funnel-shaped cone in the back of the helmet that held a plume of feathers.

Japanese roosters have perhaps the longest tails in the world. The Japanese, along with the Chinese and Malay, identified the cock with a martial spirit, although the Japanese were not much into cock fighting as compared with their Asian neighbors. It should be noted that besides rooster feathers, the Japanese adorned their head gear with diamond-shaped swords, stag horns, crescent moon horns (sometimes together with the stag horns), and even a strange sail-like adornment that resembled a snow shovel. Shortly after Frois wrote this, Tokugawa Ieyasu wore a helmet into battle designed after the cap of the deity of wealth, Daikokuten. The battle of Sekigahara took place in the year of the mouse/rat, a creature that is closely related to that deity.

30. Ours helmets have visors; Japanese helmets cover half the face with the visage of a devil.

Japanese foot soldiers wore a simple conical helmet (jingasa) made of leather or metal. Samurai wore more elaborate helmets with a face mask of lacquered iron that incorporated removable mouth and nose pieces that were intended to strike fear and awe in an opponent.[525] This was accomplished through grimacing mouths, wide eyes, flaring nostrils, and occasionally a moustache and even teeth. Ironically, this diabolical visor was partly created by the Europeans, for it was devised to protect the lower half of the face from bullets.

31. Our helmets are round; theirs have plates[526] over the ears and neck.

The folded-back “ears” on Japanese helmets often stick out like enormous bat ears. Besides contributing to a diabolical visage, they apparently helped protect the head and shoulders from the descending sword blows of opposing samurai. Neck guards of plate, which functioned much like the neck piece or gorget on European armor, protected Japanese soldiers from lateral blows and decapitation. (Note that one measure of victory in battle was the number of heads collected that belonged to opposing samurai.) As an aside, Frois probably was ignorant of the fact that many Japanese kept “dirty pictures” in their helmets.[527] Apparently there was a superstition going back to ancient China that pictures of men and women in coitus were a charm of sorts.

32. Among us, one must first don thick clothing before putting on armor; before the Japanese put on their armor, they disrobe entirely, remaining as naked as the day they were born.

The weather in Japan being what it is (hot and humid in summer), it makes sense that the Japanese undressed before donning their relatively lightweight armor. It is doubtful, however, that they were “as naked as the day they were born,” i.e. that they did not wear loincloths.

33. Among us, one does not look like he is going into battle unless he is fully armed; in Japan, one only needs to don an armored collar to say that he is armed.

The Japanese concern with neck protection makes sense when one considers that war in Japan was focused on taking heads; the Japanese even had arrows with tips designed to decapitate. As noted above, the heads of samurai were collected at the end of a battle and ritually prepared for inspection by the victorious general. The Japanese word kubi, or “neck,” refers to a decapitated rather than an attached head, or atama. When Americans lose their job, they get “fired”; the Japanese get “necked” (kubi ni naru).

34. Among us, fifes, drums, and royal trumpets are played during battle; the Japanese have nothing more than some raucous horns that sound awful.

The Japanese horn that Frois refers to is in fact a large conch-like shell (actually a large whelk) with a metal mouthpiece, which is used by mountain priests as well as the military. Okada writes that the Japanese also used drums, bells, and gongs.[528] Perhaps these were not played in parades, as in the West, so Frois never heard them.

35. Among us, each unit brandishes a square field banner, and these are carried by hand; among the Japanese, each soldier carries his own banner on a long bamboo pole fastened to his back.

European armies went into battle with men whose sole job was to carry the flags that identified individual units (e.g. infantry, cavalry), commanders (e.g. the Duke of Albuquerque), or the army as a whole (e.g. the red-white-red striped flag of the Hapsburgs).

Six-panel folding screens with paintings of famous Japanese battles evidence no shortage of flags, or rather, vertical banners (nobori), colorful banners, and standards, which distinguished individuals as well as field units.[529]

36. Among us there are sergeants, squad leaders, decurions and centurions; the Japanese pay absolutely no attention to such things.

The Japanese seem to have had a far larger military class than Europe. Moreover, each samurai brought along peasants to serve him. There were in addition large contingents of archers, lancers and, later, rifle-carrying infantrymen (ashigaru). There also were “special forces” called ninja.[530] In point of fact, Japanese armies were diverse and enormous. For instance, during the brief “war of succession” from 1598–1600, over 150,000 troops fought in one battle on one day.[531] Contrary to what Frois seems to imply (that Japanese armies lacked a chain of command), the armies were organized into different elements (cavalry, foot soldiers, supply, etc.), appropriately bearing heraldry and banners that enabled generals and their aides to direct military engagements. Significantly, the vanguard of a Japanese army often consisted of followers of a daimyo who had recently capitulated.[532]

Still, for all its size and complexity, the vocabulary for a complex chain of command is not evident in Japanese, perhaps because most armies were conscripted. Thus, in the nineteenth century when the Japanese modernized their military they borrowed the West’s terminology for different ranks.

The question is less why so few terms in Japanese and why so many in the West? Perhaps the institutional requirements (payroll, morale, privileges) of a full-time professional army required a chain of command as complex as that found in the West (Frois gave only a few examples). Interestingly, the long economic development of the Tokugawa era gave rise to a multiplicity of “ranks” within Japanese corporations, something that proves vexing when translating the ubiquitous Japanese business card (meishi) into English.

37. Among us, one fights on horseback; the Japanese dismount when they fight.

We discuss this “riding gap” in the next chapter on horses. Suffice it to say that the Japanese were not the Mongols; fighting by sword, on foot, and one on one was considered the “manly” way to fight in Japan. Note that Europeans felt much the same way until the late Middle Ages, when Muslim invaders demonstrated the advantages of “light cavalry.”[533]

38. Our kings and captains provide soldiers with a salary; in Japan everyone must pay for his own food, drink, and clothing during the course of a war.

The Hapsburg rulers of Spain created a professional army that was the best in Europe, owing to the training, salaries (including a veteran’s stipend) and opportunities for advancement that were afforded recruits and officers. In Japan, where conscription was more the rule, armies came and went and campaigns tended to be short. The Jesuits came to believe that lack of proper payment was one cause of the disloyalty “endemic” to Japan (see #42 below). They also recognized that the “self-responsibility” method of conscription was a clever way for Japanese lords, who often were relatively poor in terms of wealth and rent, to quickly assemble and field extraordinarily large forces. (In 1614, Tokugawa Ieyasu commanded a force of 200,000 men for his Osaka “summer campaign.”) While the master-vassal relationship was exploited to the hilt, this is not to say that war had no reward. As with knights in Europe, the samurai on the winning side often received grants of land and titles with corresponding privileges. There was also a sort of patriotism, for the Japanese have been equally fierce fighters for the honor of their local “countries” (even today in Japan “returning to [one’s] country” means going to one’s hometown), whose existence often was threatened during war.

39. Among us, one goes into battle to take places, cities, villages and riches; in Japan, the fighting is almost always to take wheat, rice and barley.

Taking grain to supply one’s own soldiers’ needs while depriving the enemy of food was a common war strategy in Japan and was referred to as kari-ta or “reapfield.” To suggest, however, that kari-ta was “almost always” the reason why the Japanese went to war is as misleading as suggesting that Europeans went to war to destroy foodstuffs, given the relative frequency with which European armies destroyed fields, either one’s own (during a retreat) or those of the enemy.[534] In both Europe and Japan most wars were fought over arable land.

40. Among us, horses, dromedaries, camels, etc., carry the soldiers’ gear; in Japan, the peasants[535] attached to each soldier carry his gear and food on their backs.

During the late Middle Ages the southern third of the Iberian peninsula was occupied by Berbers and other North Africans who introduced camels and dromedaries, which were used along with horses and mules as “pack animals.” As noted above, Japanese samurai often went into battle with conscripted peasants who shouldered the samurai’s gear. The contrast, while correct, is misleading if one thinks that the Japanese practice was specifically military. As discussed in the next chapter, the Japanese as a whole depended more on human than non-human animal power for transportation.

41. Among us, killing oneself is considered an extremely grave sin; during war, if the Japanese feel they cannot go on, slitting their belly is considered an act of great valor.

During the Crusades tens of thousands of Europeans sacrificed their lives in the hope of liberating Jerusalem from the infidels. Meanwhile, the Japanese evolved their own particular cult of suicide. What apparently began as a battlefield demonstration of bravery (disemboweling oneself is a particularly difficult way to go) and a way of denying the enemy a psychological victory, became a Japanese social institution, one that provided individuals with a means of limiting the repercussions, especially to family, of an individual’s wrongdoing or shortcomings.

Suicide always has been part of the Western experience (consider the heroic captain who goes down with his ship), and yet the West is loathe to acknowledge the often-felt need to take one’s own life. This might be thought of as a contrast between individualism and collectivism, or between Christianity and Buddhism (the former says life is sacred while the latter says it is an illusion). However, from the traditional Japanese point of view, it takes someone with self-discipline and self-respect (valuing one’s name over one’s life) to kill him- or herself at the right time.

Today, one still reads of Japanese who commit suicide to take responsibility for scandals, but on the whole there is little to differentiate Japanese suicide from that in the West, particularly when the “West” includes Eastern European countries with double the suicide rate of Japan. Interestingly, doctor-assisted suicide has, if anything, met stronger resistance in Japan than in most of the West. (Japanese doctors, and the Japanese as a whole, are reluctant to take responsibility for someone else’s life.)

42. Among us, treason is rare and is considered highly reprehensible; in Japan, it is so common it that it is almost never considered reprehensible.

Early modern Europe certainly had its fair share of treason, à la Macbeth. Treason was strongly censured, but also justified (Machiavelli). The extent of treachery is reflected in some of “our” current dinner rituals and dining room furniture. The credenza, for instance, initially was used as a “lab table” where servants tested the food and wine for poison before serving both.[536]

With respect to the Japanese, the main reason for treason apparently was not so much a lack of proper compensation (see #38 above); after all, as Xavier and others noted, honor meant more to the Japanese than wealth. Instead, treason appears to have resulted from the political instability of sixteenth-century Japan. During Frois’ time feudal lords came and went almost with the seasons. The era revealed the arbitrary nature of authority, which made even persons suspecting themselves to be under suspicion break and run for a new master to save himself and his family. Ironically, the nobilities’ quick recourse to capital punishment itself was due, in part, to fear that the retainer, suspecting that he might be suspected, might betray his master. This vicious circle of uncertainty was outlined by one of Frois’ Japanese contemporaries:

In our country, no one, not the lord nor anyone under his jurisdiction can live with peace of mind. The one constantly dreads treachery, while the other dreads unjust punishment at the hands of his mercilessly angry lord, or owing to a plot against him. So it is not at all rare that the sound of song and dance at the height of a banquette instantly becomes a bloodbath resounding the torments of hell.[537]

Retrospectively, there is irony here because the Japanese today think of themselves as a particularly loyal people, and this notion has been promulgated by large corporations.[538] Frois’ contrast warns us that the attractive Japanese aesthetic of transience reflected in part the real and terrifying mutability of life; vaunted Eastern stability and harmony is as much myth as it is fact.

43. Among us, it is considered a great disgrace to be an executioner; in Japan, taking another’s life to serve justice is something that any noble will do, and he takes pride in doing it.

Perhaps because capital punishment in early modern Europe often was capricious or unjust, the executioner was shunned and feared and sometimes forced to wear distinctive clothing and reside outside the city or town. This was true in much of Mediterranean Europe (i.e. Iberia, Italy, France), but not Germany. (Note that while shunned, executioners often were well paid in grain or with the assets of those they executed).

It was not out of the ordinary in sixteenth-century Japan for a lord or samurai to cut down a maleficent on the spot. There also were formal executions, sometimes performed by a lord (usually to test a sword), but mostly by untouchables, a class of people who were entrusted with executing criminals as well as butchering domesticated animals. Lastly, there were seppuku, “seconds,” who were asked by an individual intent on suicide to behead the individual just as he began disemboweling himself.[539] This assistance often was rendered by samurai or nobles and might best be called euthanasia rather than execution.

44. The cambalas[540] that are used as fans in India by the Moors and gentiles are used by the Japanese as hair to adorn the rims of their helmets.

The Japanese valued imported yak hair from China (see Chapter 2, #5) as a charm as well as adornment. Tail hair from white yaks was used on everything from spear heads to implements carried by religious leaders. As Frois notes, “fans” of yak hair (they actually look more like long-haired dusters) were used in India primarily for giving flies and mosquitoes the brush-off.

45. Our razors are thick and flat; theirs are thin and curved, with a single edge.

If Frois had possessed a greater understanding of Japanese blade technology he might have mentioned the most essential difference between Japanese blades and all others, namely that Japanese blades have a hard and keen edge and a relatively soft and resilient blade body. European blades were of a uniform consistency (relatively soft), so while they were durable, they were comparatively dull.[541]

46. We sharpen our blades using oil on a hard stone; the Japanese sharpen theirs using a soft stone and water.

The Japanese for many centuries have used sharpening stones made of sedimentary rock (the most desired stone was mined north of Kyoto in Narutaki) that is softer than the novaculite preferred by Europeans and Americans. Frois is also correct in that the Japanese use water rather than oil when sharpening their blades on the whetstone. The use of a softer stone and water means the stone does not become glazed or loaded with “swarf” as quickly, although the sharpening stone wears out faster than an oilstone. Because dull blades are useless (if not dangerous), Europeans and the Japanese prized blade sharpeners. In Europe, they went door to door in larger towns or cities, sharpening a variety of blades, including knives and scissors. During the sixteenth century Sengo Muramasa gained almost mythical status in Japan for the incredible edge he was able to produce on a sword blade.[542]

47. Among us, only barbers give shaves; in Japan, almost everyone knows how to do this.

Given the incredible sharpness of Japanese cutting devices (one could apparently shave with an adaga or short sword), it makes sense that nearly everyone in Japan was his own barber, particularly as Japan had professional sharpeners (togishi) who offered door-to-door service. Moreover, because the Japanese wrote with a brush, they may have enjoyed greater manual dexterity, enough so they could safely shave without a safety razor. The relative paucity of facial and body hair may have helped as well, but the Japanese threw away much of that advantage by also shaving part of the head.

48. Among us, if one does not go to the barber, one cannot shave his beard; many bonzos and laymen shave their beards and heads by themselves.

This contrast seems to be a repeat of #47 above, except in pointing out that not just laymen, but also Buddhist priests shaved themselves and had no need of a barber.

49. Among us, soldiers carry the fuse on their left arm; the Japanese carry it on their right.

Frois is referencing here a requirement of some of the earliest handguns used by cavalry in Europe and later introduced to Japan. These rather primitive guns were fired by a lighted fuse that was applied to a touchhole on the top of the barrel near the breech.[543] The “fuse” carried by both European and Japanese soldiers is more aptly conveyed by the Japanese term hinawa, or “fire-string,” which was kept smoldering during battle. The Dicionário Houaiss da Língua Portuguesa indicates that the morrão generally was made of linen cord, one end of which was soaked in a solution of quicklime and potassium so that it would burn slowly. The fact that the Japanese carried the fuse on their right arm, implying that they used their left hand to ignite the charge, may reflect a previous samurai tradition of holding the bow in the left, or “bow” hand (see Chapter 8, #10). In Europe, the gun was held under the right arm and ignited by a fuse held in the right hand.[544]

50. Our fuses are made of cloth fibers; theirs are made of paper or bamboo husks.

This is a difference, but hardly a striking contrast, unless European fuses burned much more slowly. For a real difference we have to wait until the seventeenth century, when Europeans embraced the flintlock.

51. Among us, one fences without speaking; the Japanese must give a shout with every blow and parry.

This shouting was discussed in #25 above. One can hear a high school kendo class in Japan practicing with their split bamboo swords from outside the gym. Scream! Whack! Scream! Scream! Whack!

52. Our soldiers in Switzerland[545] fire their harquebus from the shoulder; the Japanese place theirs against their face as if they are sighting in on an enemy.

The matchlock or harquebus, which did not require a hand-held “fuse” (the “fuse” was incorporated into the firing mechanism of the gun), was invented around 1500 in Spain and quickly became a favorite among European armies. Because of the substantial weight and recoil of the harquebus,[546] it often was fired while mounted on a forked rest or pole. Following their defeat of the armies of Charles the Bold in the 1470s, the Swiss were acclaimed Europe’s greatest soldiers. The Swiss mercenary harquebusiers mentioned here by Frois were engaged all over Europe by anyone with money to hire them, including Pope Julius II, who in 1506 initiated the enduring Papal Swiss Guard.

In 1543, several Portuguese sailors who had travelled aboard a Chinese junk to Tanegashima Island put on a demonstration of the harquebus for the ruling daimyo, and in a few short years the Japanese were producing their own muskets (called hinawaju).[547] For reasons unknown, the harquebus developed by the Japanese had a relatively short butt. Presumably it produced less recoil,[548] which might explain why the Japanese were sufficiently comfortable placing it against the face. Frois says “as if,” but perhaps the Japanese harquebusier did sight in on the enemy. Whatever the case, by 1585 numerous daimyo were using European and Japanese harquebuses to overpower competitors.[549] At the battle of Shimabara in 1584, the Jesuit supporter Õtomo fielded an army of 25,000 men, at least 9,000 of whom carried harquebuses.[550] During the opening decades of the seventeenth century, the Tokugawa became fearful that an armed peasantry might mount a successful rebellion, and so the government disarmed the peasantry and forbade firearms.[551]


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