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Noel Perrin, the Tokugawa Shogunate, and Land Mines

Last Sunday I went to a memorial gathering. It was near the second anniversary of the death of the writer Noel Perrin, and Terry Osborne, his friend and now the owner of his house, invited people to come reminisce and read from his works.

Noel Perrin is best known for his thoughtful and funny essays on rural life, collected in four books, starting with First Person Rural and ending with Last Person Rural. Terry Osborne has edited a collection of Ned’s pieces, called Best Person Rural: Essays of a Sometime Farmer. These books chronicle 40 years of a life split between teaching at Dartmouth, writing, and farming. The editor of The American Scholar, Robert Wilson, said that Noel had “the best plain prose style in America.”

Ned wrote a book unlike all his others, ostensibly on Japanese military history. Giving Up The Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, is an account of how Japan enthusiastically adopted and then rejected the use of firearms. Portuguese traders brought primitive matchlock firearms to Japan in the mid-1500’s. The Japanese copied them and improved on them, establishing a firearms industry. By 1600 Japan had more and better firearms than the rest of the world combined. This came at a price.

The new technology allowed a crowd of reasonably well trained peasants to defeat a group of highly skilled samurai. A samurai could no longer step forward from the line of battle, recite his illustrious ancestry, and challenge all comers to personal combat. Some rice farmer could drop him from a distance. Firearms allowed for larger numbers of less skilled, more easily replaced soldiers, which encouraged the building of armies and ill-advised military adventurism, including a disastrous invasion of Korea around the turn of the 17th century..

In the early 1600’s the Tokugawa shogunate that controlled Japan initiated a series of laws that restricted the manufacture and ownership of firearms. By the 1650’s firearms were a curiosity, occasionally used for hunting by the nobility. Japan had turned inward, and experienced 200 years of relative peace and prosperity.

I am not interested in this period of Japanese history as some kind of parable about modern gun control, nor do I see anything altruistic in the actions of the Japanese aristocracy. Neither did Noel. He wrote this book in 1979, when the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was going full bore. The constant rebuttal to arms control proposals was, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Once a technology exists, it will be used.” Noel wrote this book to counter that mindset. The Tokugawas took a second look at a technology and decided that it did not benefit them. The citizens of a democracy could do the same.

So, if not gun control, what am I writing about? First, that we don’t have to passively accept any and all socially or environmentally destructive technologies as an inevitable part of our lives. Second, that taking a laissez faire approach to the development and deployment of technology insures social and environmental damage. There is a direct relationship (which I will quantify another time) between the destructiveness, size, and wastefulness of a technology and the amount of money someone can make from it.

We, the people, need to plan and choose among technologies. Another multi-billion dollar boondoggle weapons system or a better way to collect solar energy? Another me-too cholesterol drug or a way to regenerate damaged spinal tissue? Time, brainpower, and funding are limited, and we need to prioritize. Much of the primary R&D in this country is publicly funded, and we have a right to decide where our money goes. We shouldn’t neglect the technologies that are already out there. We are well along in the process of eliminating ozone-destroying fluorocarbons from our chemical repertoire. Why not plutonium and perfluorates? Land mines and cluster bombs need to go back in the box. Are we going to let ourselves be shown up by a bunch of 17th century samurai?

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