A History of Violence
“WE’RE TOTALLY NOT AN ARMY, SERIOUSLY YOU GUYS”
Part 1: A History of Violence
When westerners who have neither lived in nor had much intimate contact with Japan offer simple descriptions of the Japanese people, most of them turn out to be unfair or inaccurate caricatures garnered from movies, television shows and (shudder) anime. If one were to gather these adjectives into a list, you’d see things like “stoic”, “obsessed with honor”, “inscrutable”, “ninjas”, “good at math and the sciences”, “not especially good at basketball”, etc. We’ve all heard them. At some point in our lives, long before we came to this lovely island with its complex people and culture, we probably held similar opinions. But one description of the Japanese you rarely, if ever, hear from westerners is “warlike”.
Indeed, most westerners, including those that live here, would laugh off such a suggestion. It’s not hard to understand why it’s met with such incredulity. If you’re reading this, then you must live in Japan and thus are well aware of the Japanese tendency to avoid confrontation. You’ve no doubt experienced it first-hand. I recall ten years ago, during my second trip to Tokyo, my brother and I were on an escalator at Tokyo station. We were standing on the right, as is typical in the US., and were about halfway down the ridiculously long escalator when some young Chinese women we had been chatting with yelled from the top floor to “move to the left”. We looked behind us and saw an incredibly long line of Japanese people patiently waiting for the two idiot white people to get out of their way so they could walk down the escalator and get to their jobs. No one had said even so much as “sumimasen”.
In the US, in some cities, we would have been knocked to the ground and trampled almost immediately, nevermind receiving a polite request to move aside. But this is Japan; how often do you see a fist fight that didn’t involve foreigners somehow? It is very rare to see two japanese men truly taking swings at one another, and this is a country that definitely enjoys its drinking (this is a uniquely Japanese trait, by the way; when I arrived in South Korea three years ago, I was under the impression that the locals were of the same mind. They are not. A drunk South Korean man needs as much provocation as a drunk Australian to take a swing at you: very little). Given this cultural peculiarity, it is difficult for westerners to see the Japanese as especially warlike or violent. But a casual look through their military history reveals a strong affinity, or at least a tendency, to make war upon their neighbors and more often upon themselves. As far back as the fourth century CE Japan was fighting with Korea and China. That in and of itself is not so strange; over in Europe at that time the Roman Empire was still stomping around the continent and losing battles to the Visigoths, one of two brands of Goths around at the time. By the time Japan foolishly became involved in a dispute between two Korean kingdoms in mid-sixth century CE (after all, when has getting into a land war in Asia ever been a bad idea?), the Roman Empire had split and the Western Empire had been lost to the Ostrogoths, the other brand of Goths, after a series of brutal battles (the Visigoths had moved further west, taking control of what we now call France and Spain and Portugal, eventually losing it when the Muslim armies arrived and kicked the dogshit out of them in roughly 700 BCE).
It was in the Nara period (710–794) that what would become the typical feudal warrior of Japan was born, and it was in the Heian period (794–1185) that he learned to put a sword through someone’s face with style. There were battles all the time in this period, at the start usually concerning the succession of the Chrysanthemum Throne, and later for really any reason at all. Land dispute? Battle. Political dispute? Get your sword. Shift in your clan’s influence? Come at me, bro. It’s Tuesday and it looks like it might rain? All out war.
For the next seven hundred years or so Japan had an emperor while the real power resided with the shoguns. Shogunates, which were essentially military governments, where the only real players in Japanese politics for a good seven centuries. Before this time, while everyone was still willing to fight everyone else just because a dog farted at the wrong time, they would all unite to fight off an invader. Now, however, they had become so good at fighting that they weren’t afraid of anyone trying to invade, so there was never any reason to unite in (relative) peace. As such, during the Kamakura period, with the exception of the Mongol invasion of the 13th century (had Japan known how far the Mongols had conquered by that time, they probably would have united so fast they wouldn’t even bother to decide what colors to wear), the military conflicts were all internal.
That mongol invasion, it should be noted, woke Japan up to how to really fight a battle. Never mind protocol, never mind rules of single combat — just get out there and put your sword, spear, arrow, or bare fist into the other guy’s guts before he does the same to you. While the samurai of this time were familiar with using a bow while mounted on a horse, the Mongols were so good at this that the Japanese no doubt took a few lessons from them when they weren’t being stuck full of arrows or sliced to pieces by the same screaming horde that had stomped its way across half the globe. The Japanese were experienced at war, certainly, but the Mongols were the Mongols; at this point they had literally conquered the majority of Europe and Asia. It would take an act of god for a tiny island off the coast of China to thwart them. Fortunately for Japan, that is exactly what happened. Twice.
After god came down from the heavens to blow the Mongols off the island and into the sea, and then did it again because Mongols apparently need to be told twice, Japan returned to normal. Which is to say, it concerned itself primarily with acts of violent death for about 50 years. During this time, the early Muromachi period, weapon smithing was greatly improved and the katana was invented, becoming the primary weapon of the samurai (before it had been the bow). Battles became bigger and strategies became more complex. Finally, united under the Ashikaga shogunate, there was relative peace for almost a century before shit once again hit the fan. The Sengoku period (commonly called in English “Age of the Country at War”, which only hints at the amount of conflict) saw the collapse of any kind of central government, be it Imperial or Shogunate. Warlords called “daimyos” arose, ruling smaller territories and fighting constantly for more. Over a hundred such warlords fought back and forth for a couple centuries or so, with territories changing back and forth rapidly and wouldbe emperors being murdered almost as soon as they had their first thought toward uniting anything bigger than two banks of a river. It was at this time that the Japanese took war and raised it to a science; cavalry charges and foot-soldiers and sieges were introduced and some of the largest battles of the pre-modern world were fought here, on this little island off the coast of China.
So it went until Nobunaga, then Hideyoshi, and finally Tokugawa rose to prominence with Tokugawa eventually being awarded the title “shogun” and becoming ruler of a united Japan. There was a brief battle with Korea during Hideyoshi’s career, which ended with Korea building their first navy of any kind and using it thrash Hideyoshi’s navy so badly that the Japanese still don’t like to talk about it, but not much international involvement at all besides that. After Tokugawa took control, there was a period of peace for over 250 years.
That peace ended abruptly when Americans showed up in Tokyo bay and demanded that Japan let them in, else they huff and puff and bombard Edo with the most advanced artillery rounds on the planet and turn it into a smoking ruin. Edo complied, but was still wary of opening its ports to all kinds of foreigners. During this period, the transition from the Tokugawa era to the Meiji era, chaos and violence were everywhere — there was no clear heir to the Shogunate and no one knew who was going to become leader of Japan, so it was generally agreed by all that the role was up for grabs. Some worried if Japan would even still exist after the barbarians were allowed in. A nobleman named Ii Naoske, who cared little for fighting and was much more interested in tea ceremonies (at which he was apparently a master), took a look at how the Europeans had carved China into pieces and decided that between fighting them militarily or allying with them economically, the latter was significantly preferable. He convinced everyone (almost everyone, rather) to see the sense in this and was able to persuade Japan to open its ports. He would later be assassinated for this and other “betrayals”, but he is still remembered as a man that kept Japan from turning into a European or American colony. His homestead and his castle, by the way, can be found here in the Kansai area in a small town called Hikone. It’s about a half hour from Kyoto off the coast of lake Biwa.
After the chaos and confusion of the transition, during which the final internal war in Japan was fought between Imperial forces and the last of the Shogunate armies, Imperial forces found themselves and Emperor Meiji in charge of a Japan with gates opened to the wonders of European technology; technology such as trains, but more importantly, weapons.
It didn’t take long for Japan to start buying weapons from Europe and America, which it then reverse-engineered before going on to build modern weapons of its own. At the same time, Japan had cast its vision over the new world to which it had just been introduced and saw the major powers of the world, many of whom were friendly to Japan now that the nation had decided to play ball, invading less powerful countries and claiming territory for their own Empires. I like to imagine Japan seeing this colonization, taking note of its own growing collection of modern weapons, and turning its gaze to the giant land mass just across the water while rubbing its chin thoughtfully.