July 26, 2012
The samurai sword
The "ordinary" swords used by Ryô and Koreya in chapter 37 of Serpent of Time would have been, at the end of the 14th century, some of the best-made weapons in the world.
|Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.|
Weapons technology in medieval Japan was like the cheetah, the product of a genetic bottleneck during the last ice age that left it really good at doing one thing: running fast. But at the same time, frozen in its genetic mold, unable to change until it may be too late.
For a thousand years Japan was home to the world's best swordsmiths. The Nova documentary "Secrets of the Samurai Sword" describes the advanced steelmaking techniques used by these medieval blacksmiths. But the technology only evolved within that "species."
When the Portuguese traders arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century, the chaos of the Warring States period had shattered the social status quo. This "punctuated equilibrium" allowed iconoclasts like Oda Nobunaga to deploy the cannon and musket to great effect.
For fifty years, Japan's gunsmiths then produced the world's best firearms. Though as soon as the Tokugawa regime was established, firearms were effectively banned. Japan's swordsmiths returned to what was by then essentially a state-sponsored antique business.
As a result, by the 19th century, Japan's military hardware was three centuries out of date. However, this dedication to the sword as an status symbol did have the advantage of making sure those reservoirs of technical talent had not languished in the meantime.
Just as during the Warring States period, the tumult of the Meiji Restoration again woke up Japanese manufacturers and entreprenuers to the promise and possibilities of foreign technology. They made up all that lost ground almost overnight.