Known as the Haitorei Edict, during the Meiji Period and Restoration (1868-1912), the social class of samurai was abolished, banning non-government officials from carrying swords. A Sword Hunt followed leading to the confiscation of all weapons and swords in Japan by the government.
However, Japan has had an extensive record of rulers attempting to seize weapons from the people, dating back to the start of the Sengoku Period (1467-1600).
Japan's Sword History
Japan’s ‘kawaii’ nature might not make you think it, but Japan has had an extensive history that’s been mired in bloody wars, social conflicts, and historical figures climbing to the top of the food chain while everyone else is fighting below to get there. Because war was life in Japan, the Japanese adapted, which spawned in the social class known as samurai who’d hone their fighting skills to near perfection for the battles they participated in while serving their lord.
The disciplined Bushido code all samurai followed called for such skills to be perfected, leading to the samurai to be well versed in various fighting styles. Swordsmanship had been around since antiquity, but never favored among samurai, as the bow was more effective and lethal on the battlefield. This was up until the Mongol Invasions (1274-1281) where swords proved their worth in devastating the invading armies, as the razor-sharp katana of the Japanese were capable of slicing through armor with ease. Since then, swords had become a deadly favorite among the samurai.
Before swords were favored in combat and their slicing capabilities known, they were used for thrusting. Therefore blades were crafted in a straight-blade style instead of the infamous curve the katana has. Midst the Heian Period (794-1185) during the rise of the samurai, sword blades were starting to be crafted with a curve, contributing to the lethalness it had during the Mongol Invasions.
As the katana became more popular in Japan, the samurai were quick to stroke their ego and cutting prowess by cutting up everything in sight, literally. We’re talking bamboo, criminals, and innocent people. Normally after a samurai received a new blade, he’d test it by cutting stocks of bamboo or tatami matting, a practice that is still done today known as Tameshigiri (Test Cut - 試し切り).
If cutting bamboo wasn’t enough, a samurai would have the honor to test his sword on a criminal sentenced to death. If there wasn’t any criminals around, they’d test their sword on strangers in a practice known as Tsujigiri (Crossroad Killing - 辻斬り). Yeah, the samurai aren’t quite that noble as they’re commonly portrayed as.
The Sword Hunts
When Japan was in the process of unifying under Oda Nobunaga, the possession of weapons by peasants and monks became very problematic. Revolts made by autonomous groups known as Ikko-Ikki (一向一揆) inspired peasants and monks to revolt against their samurai masters. To correct this, Nobunaga would unofficially order the first ‘Sword Hunt’ to try and confiscate weapons from peasants to disarm the revolts. After Nobunaga was betrayed and killed, his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi would continue his work in disarming Japan.
To officially address these issues, the kampaku (Imperial Regent) of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued a decree in 1588 that restricted farmers from having any weapons. To prevent another uprising, and entice a willing surrender, Hideyoshi promised that all the weapons collected would be used to make rivets for a Great Buddha Statue in Asuka-dera, Nara.
Still under Hideyoshi, a third Sword Hunt would take place known as “Taiko’s Sword Hunt” in 1590, triggered by the increase of Ronin (Wanderer - 浪人 ) samurai, or masterless samurai. Because Ronin were often armed and technically samurai, the fear was that they’d band together to stage a revolt to overthrow Hideyoshi. Similar to the movie 47 Ronin. These sword hunts would be proven effective as another one wouldn’t be declared until the late 1800s.
The Final Sword Hunt
Wrapped in turmoil from the Boshin War, Japan had a very rough patch of history throughout the 19th Century during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) as Imperial power was restored, and the Shogunate defeated. Pressured by Western Powers, the Imperial Government rushed to solidify their power in Japan so that they could easily modernize and keep up with western standards.
The Haitorei Edict, or a set of tradition breaking edicts were passed in 1876 to completely reform Japan and dispose of the samurai as a class. This included a ban on samurai carrying swords, and eventually a complete abolishment of the samurai as a whole after the formation of a police force and modern army. A fourth and final Sword Hunt would take place as the imperial government sought to put all weapons in the hands of government officials, and to limit any chances of a rebellion like their predecessors.
Although the Imperial Government went through great lengths to prevent uprisings from happening, they still did as discontent grew due to drastic changes in Japanese society.
If you love movies about Japan, The Last Samurai depicts these events unfolding. Although overly dramatized, I definitely recommend watching it if you haven’t already.
But Wait, People Carry Swords Today?
Today, you may see people still practicing swordsmanship like Tameshigiri, Kenjutsu, or Iaito. If the government had confiscated every sword and made it illegal, how do these people still have swords? Well, having a sword isn’t entirely illegal. You can still get one, but you must go through an extreme vetting process to obtain one. Almost like when you purchase a gun and get a permit or license.
Dictated by Japan’s Sword and Firearm Law enacted in 1958, there are many steps and requirements you must follow in order to legally own a sword. Swords must be traditionally made by a licensed smith within Japan, and cannot go over certain lengths. Swords with artistic or historical significance must get approved by the Education Board.
If you are a sword fanatic and like to collect cool swords, getting one out of Japan is risky business. You can’t just go to an airport and expect to go through customs smoothly, as it is illegal to do so without a permit. Importing swords to Japan is even more difficult as you could be imprisoned for not providing proper paperwork prior to coming.
If you are interested, you can follow this link here to get the full list of requirements translated in English straight from the source.
Putting The Sword Away
So there you have it. A complete rundown on how, why, and when Japan stopped letting people carry swords around. To clarify, Nobunaga was the first to crack down on the ownership of swords, but it wasn’t until the Meiji Period when swords were completely banned and confiscated from everyone including samurai.
I tried to stay on topic, but it’s worth noting that Hideyoshi also banned guns as well, the first and earliest gun ban in history. All this history contributing to Japan’s ability in being able to keep their country weapon free.