Retreat to Move Forward

I confess to having a strong antipathy to smart phones.  I know that they have their good uses.  But I am bewildered as I see people bring them out at various times and places.  I wonder what has become of us.

Now, I also realize a large amount of hypocrisy on my part.  I should also ask what has become of me.  I don’t have a smartphone . . . but I love my iPod, and I check my email too much.  In my mind, if technology had stopped advancing after Apple came out with its 160 GB iPod classic, I would be content.  But even if I am right that our prolific use of smartphones do us harm, what can be done?  After all, retreating from them seems impossible, and time marches on.  To stop advancing technologically would condemn us to economic stagnation.  To actually prevent technology from further advancing would probably require a government more powerful than would be good for us.

So it appears that we’re stuck.

But, maybe not.  The premise of Noel Perrin’s Giving up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879 is that a people can halt a certain kind of technology without radically changing their society.  While certain particular features of Japanese society allowed for this, Perrin states rightly that this example disproves certain well-entrenched ideas about technology and progress, among them:

  • That one must “keep up with the Jones'” to have a successful society
  • That technological progress comes as a whole and not in parts.  In other words, many falsely assume that to halt “progress” in one area will prevent advances in other areas.
  • That halting progress will put a society irrevocably behind other societies.  Instead, when Japan did decide to adopt modern weapons in the late 19th century, they very quickly caught up to others and soon posed a significant military threat.

So first we can examine why Japan could nearly eliminate guns from their society, and then secondarily, we can consider its possible application for us.

I initially assumed that Japan’s restrictive trade practices limited their contact with firearms from the start.  Not so — in fact they made significant use of firearms well into the 1560’s, and European traders remarked quite favorably on their quality.  We might also assume that Japan had a low-level of technology in general, but again — not the case.  To quote Perrin,

Japan had already reached a high level of technology.  Her copper and steel were probably better, and certainly cheaper, than any produced in Europe.  Despite enormous shipping costs, the Dutch found it profitable to send Japanese copper 10,000 miles from Amsterdam.

. . . In iron and steel Japan could undersell England, the recognized leader of European producers.  [Japan also] led the world in paper products.  For 200 years they were the leading manufacturer of weapons.  These were top quality weapons, too, especially the swords.  It is designed to cut through tempered steel, and it can . . .

In a country often experiencing some kind of conflict at some point, they well understood the value of rifles.  But by the end of the 16th century Japan decided against all forms of military mechanization so successfully that they generally disappeared for 250 years.

Of course others in Europe saw the problems with firearms.  Martin Luther said that, “Cannon and firearms are cruel and damnable machines.  I believe them to be the direct invention of the Devil.”  But Germany went on to become the pre-eminent arms manufacturer.  Many French aristocrats inveighed vociferously against the impersonal nature of such weapons, as well as the fact that their introduction would broaden war beyond the aristocracy.  But they too followed the general trend.

Certain factors within Japan made it more likely that they would have success while Europeans failed.  Being an island did not hurt.  Their demographics also played a role.  In France, for example, the warrior aristocracy represented about .1-.2% of the population.  In Japan that number reached close to 10%, which gave them that much more influence.   Japanese swords also had such a high quality that the difference in effectiveness between a sword and a 16th century gun was less than in Europe.

But Perrin argues that the main factor lies in the role of the sword in Japan.  In Europe some swords had religious and symbolic significance, i.e. King Arthur’s “Excalibur,” or Roland’s “Durendal.”  But in Japan, the sword almost literally represented the soul of warrior for every samurai.  Swords were an extension of the self.  Making them obsolete would in effect, make themselves obsolete.  They would have no purpose as they would have no identity.

Perrin relates an interesting story along these lines.  One group of samurai besieged the castle of another warrior.  Eventually it became obvious that the besiegers would win, whereby the besieged asked for a conference.  He explained to his attackers that he had several swords inside that he wished to preserve from destruction.  Would the attackers agree to receive the swords and preserve them?  And so, the defenders, with solemn ceremony, transferred the swords to the attacking army and then retreated back into the castle.  After which, the attackers set fire to the estate and all those inside perished.

Many aristocratic warriors in Europe and Japan detested firearms because it made combat itself impersonal and unredeemable.   We see many examples of dialog during combat in the Arthurian tales, but it seems the Japanese took this to another level.  Perrin gives us one such example, as Warrior ‘X’ tried to behead Warrior ‘Y’ unsuccessfully, who was wounded and exhausted.

Y: Are you fluttered, sir?  You see you have no success.  Look, I wear a nagowa (an iron neck collar).  Remove it, and you can cut off my head.

X: (Bows to “Y”) Thank you sir!  You die an honorable death.  You have my admiration!

One could even argue that Japanese warriors sought not so much victory, but an honorable death.  Firearms dramatically increased the chance that you would die without an honorable end, without a chance to “fly the flag” at the last moment — however much it increased your chances of victory.

Early Japanese firearm manuals acknowledged this and more.  To fire guns well, such manuals stated, one even had to put the body in “demeaning,” inelegant postures.  For the Japanese, the gun represented not just another weapon, but another view of humanity.

Firearms returned late in the 19th century.  Ironically, Admiral Perry told them that if they wanted to keep others like him away, they would need more modern weapons.  Japan then turned on a dime and within a generation had a respectable military force.  Within two generations they posed a grave threat to the most modern of militaries and nearly conquered all of Asia.  The absence of mechanized weapons for three centuries put them at no real disadvantage once they determined to catch up.

One of the oldest tropes in the history of History is historians wishing for bygone days of yore.  But I think our worries about technology go far beyond nostalgia.  Advancement is now so rapid that we have no time to contemplate or evaluate the role of technology in our lives.  We have to ability to develop “social antibodies” to the problems with technology.  As such, we have within the last 10 years become utterly dependent and quite possibly addicted to the internet.  Paul Graham, the innovator behind Reddit, Dropbox, and a variety of other programs, writes,

. . . And unless the rate at which social antibodies evolve can increase to match the accelerating rate at which technological progress throws off new addictions, we’ll be increasingly unable to rely on customs to protect us. Unless we want to be canaries in the coal mine of each new addiction—the people whose sad example becomes a lesson to future generations—we’ll have to figure out for ourselves what to avoid and how. It will actually become a reasonable strategy (or a more reasonable strategy) to suspect everything new.

In fact, even that won’t be enough. We’ll have to worry not just about new things, but also about existing things becoming more addictive. That’s what bit me. I’ve avoided most addictions, but the Internet got me because it became addictive while I was using it.

Do we have any hope of emulating the Japanese and pausing our technological growth?

A few other random examples of at least halting technology exist (such as Elizabeth I preventing indoor plumbing), but I can’t think of another example of a society moving “forwards,”* then “backwards” with the adoption of certain technologies.  Japan’s insular geographic position helped them, as did their demographics, governance, and culture — and I find these last two most significant.

Americans rarely acknowledge the fact that aristocracies come with some benefits, or at least, alternative possibilities.  Japan’s warrior elite had the political and social status to make the ban stick.  Add to that the pull of a unique and deeply distinctive Japanese culture, one that perhaps approximated that of ancient Egypt in its power to unify a large mass of people in a particular way of life (another geographically insulated civilization).

We have no geographic isolation.  Nor does our culture have anything close to Japan’s gravitational pull, i.e. — our capital exports little more than bureaucracy to the rest of the country.  And finally, our democratic system has something close to a zero-percent chance of desiring, or certainly enforcing, such a return to earlier ways.  Self-denial simply has very little place in democratic cultures.

Now I think it’s time for me to check my email . . .



Matt Zoller of writes,

We’ve become a one-handed species. We keep one hand in reserve for taking out a wallet, digging in a purse, swiping a Metrocard, helping up a person who’s fallen on the sidewalk, whatever. The other hand is for Making Sure We Got This.

I know, I know. This has been going on for a few years. It’s not a news flash; it’s who we are as a species. I’m Grandpa Abe Simpson yammering about onion belts. I should climb onto the ice floe and shove off. Or say, “Oh yeah, things change, technology changes, it’s no big deal” and quit complaining.

But I think it deserves ongoing consideration and argument, because it’s everywhere.

Is it merely different from, but in no way inferior to, older forms of participation, as people who are addicted to doing it tend to claim when they read pieces like this one? I have no idea. Only a cognitive researcher could say with any authority. But it’s a major and visible change. It’s species-wide.

And I’ve personally not heard any convincing arguments against the idea that it means we have become, in some basic way, detached from our own existence; that life itself is becoming a supplier of material for Instagram, Flicker, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and the like, rather than a thing that happens to us, and that we absorb with our bodies and minds, not with our phones.

*I think it would be a nearly impossible to construct a good argument that mechanized weaponry represented an advance for civilization.