The Swords of Japan: a Window to Modernization

Michael Herman


The year 1868 marked nationwide turmoil and unrest in Japan as civil war gripped the country by its core and forced it to change its ancient ways. With the young Emperor Meiji in place, a radical change of Japanese culture ensued as the country moved wholesale into western learning in the cultural, social and economic arenas. With the feudal system and samurai class virtually dismantled, Japan moved away from many of its old traditions and brought in everything that was new and modern. But those who have studied World War II Japan or even seen movies depicting that time period may have noticed that WWII-era Japanese soldiers believed they were acting like samurai in certain rituals and even carried government-issue samurai swords. It is curious how this came to be since only decades earlier the Meiji government had made it illegal to carry samurai swords under the Haitorei edit (1876) in an attempt to modernize. This modernization ultimately led to a rise of the Japanese nationalist fervor in the mid-1890’s which caused a return to and gross distortion of Japanese traditional values through concepts like “bushido.” Many scholars argue that the radical break away from Japanese culture, and subsequent interest in feudal Japan and the Samurai, was a response to the rapid urbanization and industrialization of their society. I will test this by examining the change in the primary weapon of the traditional Japanese warrior, the sword, from the Edo period to World War II and what this change can tell us about the development of the Japanese warrior and the nation he fought for during the late Meiji period through the Imperial era.


Japan; Samurai; Bushido; Nationalism; Military Swords


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