The Haitōrei Edict
Collection of Swords, 1588
The farmers of all provinces are strictly forbidden to have in their possession any swords, short swords, bows, spears, firearms or other types of weapons. If unnecessary implements are kept, the collection of annual rent (nengu) may become more difficult, and without provocation uprisings can be fomented…The swords and short swords collected in the above manner will not be wasted. They will be used as nails and bolts in the construction of the Great Image of Buddha [at Hōkōji monastery in Kyoto]. In this way, the farmers will benefit not only in the life but also in the lives to come…If farmers possess only agricultural implements and devote themselves exclusively to cultivating the fields, they and their descendants will prosper. This compassionate concern for the well-being of the farmers is the reason for the issuance of this edict, and such a concern is the foundation for the peace and security of the country and the joy and happiness of all the people. In China, in olden days, the sage ruler Yao pacified the country and converted precious swords and sharp knives into agricultural implements. But there is no precedent for such an act in this country. Thus, all the people must abide by the provisions of this edict and understand its intent, and farmers must work diligently in agriculture and sericulture.
From Sources of Japanese History, 186 – 187. Volume 1. Ed. David John Lu. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
One of the most powerful political figures of the sixteenth century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (ca. 1537 – 1598) laid the foundation for the unification of Japan’s disparate domains, and by extension, the base of “Japan’s early modern social order” via “resurrected patrician forms of government.”(16) In 1588, he initiated the katanagari or “sword-hunt,” prohibiting all but the samurai class from possessing “any swords, short swords, bows, spears, firearms or other types of weapons,” exhorting them to convert those “precious swords and sharp knives into agricultural implements,” and promising them that they would “benefit not only in this life but also in the lives to come."(17) Allegedly, the reason for this edict was “compassionate concern for the well-being of the farmers,” which in turn would ensure the “peace and security of the country and the joy and happiness of all the people."(18) Yet consider the qualities the sword embodied at the time – martial valor, fighting prowess, and samurai spirit. It is one thing for the ruling class to possess these assets; it is another thing entirely for their subjects to believe themselves capable of such virtue. Furthermore, the edict notes that “if unnecessary implements are kept, the collection of annual rent (nengu) may become more difficult, and without provocation uprisings can be fomented."(19) Thus the katanagari edict was actually intended to preclude “the likelihood of armed rebellion,” draw a more obvious and significant divide between samurai and peasantry, and overall, move the “centres of samurai power structure…fully in the castle towns rather than in the agricultural world where the samurai had traditionally had their roots."(20) In short, to maintain order in a previously warring nation and consolidate the power of the ruling class, peasants’ swords had to be taken away.
The katanagari edict had significant parallels to another series of edicts called the Haitōrei, enacted a relatively short time after 1868, when Japan’s separate domains were officially placed under the authority of the Emperor Meiji (1852 – 1912) following the Boshin War. The first forbade peasants from “carrying swords or dressing in the manner of a samurai” while the second limited the occasions when samurai themselves could wear swords.(21) The third and final Haitorei Edict, proclaimed in 1876, effectively put an end to the wearing of swords in every situation except for a handful of formal ceremonies. It was a controversial decision, but not a sudden one – previously, there had been “attempts by some in the new Japanese parliament to adopt wholly Western ideals and in 1869 a proposal was made to ban seppuku” and “to make the samurai tradition of the wearing of two swords optional rather than compulsory.”(22) Both proposals were shot down, but the systematic delegitimizing of sword-carrying progressed inexorably on until 1876. Unsurprisingly, “these moves were seen by many of the samurai as far too radical and opposition was vociferous;” indeed, “the forbidden swords were on more than one occasion used to assassinate those government officials who had proposed and implemented these radical reforms.”(23)
However, as noted before, the fact remained that the sword was very clearly no longer the technological epitome of the time, and in a modernizing world, “there was no place…for the samurai as a distinct warrior class,"(24) as evidenced by the short-lived and ill-fated 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, when the Meiji government’s conscript army, armed with modern weapons, faced the insurgent Satsuma samurai, who were more “traditionally armed…The rebels in extreme cases refused to use guns, preferring instead to fight with the traditional weapons of the samurai, the sword, spear, bow and naginata, thereby perpetuating some of the mystique of the samurai. Their philosophy was that it was better to die using traditional weapons than modern ones."(25) And so, with the Haitōrei Edict, the consequent outlawing of swords, the defeat of the Satsuma rebels, and, perhaps, the end of the samurai themselves came a new chapter in Japanese swordsmithing.
16 Elisonas, Jurgis, “Toyotomi Hideyoshi.” Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, 2007 – 2014. Accessed November 22, 2014. http://www.oxfordartonline.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T085944?print=true. Web.
17 “Collection of Swords.” 1588. In Sources of Japanese History, 186 – 187. Volume 1. Ed. David John Lu. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
18 Ibid., 187.
19 Ibid., 186.
20 Irvine, 64.
21 Kapp, 37.
22 Irvine, 107.
23 Ibid., 108 – 109.
24 Ibid., 108.
25 Ibid., 109 – 110.