Fri, Jul 3, 2020

Ashikita Matchlock Gun Corps: Provincial samurai musketeers of the Edo period

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

The Ashikita Matchlock Gun Corps
By Hester Mullen / CIR for Ashikita, Kumamoto Pref.

Stretched along the serene southwest coast of Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu, Ashikita town seems an unlikely place to find a standing army. The atmosphere here is tranquil. Often, the sounds of birdsong and the gentle lapping of waves are all that can be heard.

Only the stone foundations of Sashiki Castle overlooking the town remain as proof that the Ashikita region was once heavily defended. In fact, during the Edo period, more than 400 musketeers and provincial samurai were stationed in this region.

The Ashikita Matchlock Gun Corps perform at Sashiki Castle Ruins.

Then, the modern Ashikita Matchlock Gun Corps takes the stage at one of Ashikita’s festival, in full samurai regalia. They light the fuses of their matchlock guns, and at their captain’s cry, fire in formation. The crack of gunpowder echoes off the mountains, and for a moment, the town’s past is brought back to life.

The Ashikita Matchlock Gun Corps is a society established in 2003, to preserve artifacts related to matchlock guns, including original muskets, gun-smithing tools and early clockwork. Its members also train, and perform, in the style of the musket corps that was stationed here 450 years ago.

I encountered the corps in my first week as Ashikita’s CIR, when I helped to coordinate their tour of Hawaii. At the time, I was surprised to learn that they were the town’s Goodwill Ambassadors. Now, having seen them perform many times, I understand what has charmed crowds not only across Japan, but also in South Korea, the U.K. and Hawaii.

In performance, the Ashikita Matchlock Gun Corps demonstrates in strict formation, serious and refined, as they load, ignite, and fire the original matchlock guns that belonged the musketeers stationed here during the Edo period. Yet there is also humor in their performances – as an encore, they often fire colorful streamers into the audience.

The National Matchlock Gun Summit was held in Ashikita in September 2014. At the event, 251 participants from 31 gun corps fired simultaneously, breaking the Guinness World Record.

Afterwards, members of the corps discuss local history with audience members, and even allow them to feel the weight of those 450-year-old artifacts in their own hands. For them, matchlock guns mark the change that has swept through Japan, from the bloody Sengoku (warring states) period of relentless fighting to the present day.

The matchlock, or hinawaju in Japanese, is an early type of musket, so-named because before firing a hinawa (rope fuse) must be ignited by hand. Matchlock weapons were first introduced to Japan by Portuguese merchants on board Ming Chinese junks, which landed at Tanegashima Island, southern Kyushu, in 1542. Though initially used for hunting, blacksmiths soon recreated matchlocks, gun corps were established and new tactics of warfare were devised. The matchlock gun became pivotal in the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, from which Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) emerged victorious, ushering in the Edo period.

A medium-sized matchlock gun originally used by the Ashikita Ogo’orizutsu, with the corps logo

Matchlock guns not only influenced warfare, but also technology. Firearms were the first examples of machinery encountered by many smiths, introducing them to the screw, a deceptively simple technology that led to advances in science, clockwork and eventually automation. Beyond engineering, firing muskets required new concepts in mathematics, such as parabolas to calculate bullet trajectories, and in chemistry, to create gunpowder. These advances contributed to a seismic shift in Japanese technology.

Many scholars devoted themselves to the study of gunnery, among them Inatomi Ichimu (1552-1611), who established the Inatomi School, of which Tokugawa Ieyasu was a student. The Inatomi School created diagrams teaching how to set up, load and aim matchlocks. Gunnery was studied alongside disciplines such as judo, sword-fighting and horse-riding, and many samurai trained in musket corps, including in the Ashikita region.

At the dawn of the Edo period, the region of present-day Ashikita was part of Higo Country, a domain located along the west coast of Kyushu in what is now Kumamoto Prefecture. Higo Country was ruled by the Kato Clan, brought to prominence by Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611), a general and castle-builder famous as the architect behind Kumamoto Castle.

However, in 1632, Kiyomasa’s heir Kato Tadahiro was banished for treason against the shogun, and control of Higo Country passed to Hosokawa Tadaoki, who brought many retainers with him, pushing out samurai loyal to the Kato Clan.

These former vassals returned to work in the fields as ronin (master-less samurai). Fearing civil unrest, and the powerful Satsuma Domain to the south of Ashikita, the Hosokawa Clan established a gun corps called the Ashikita Ogo’orizutsu, made up of 210 provincial samurai. These peasant farmers worked the fields, and trained in the Inatomi style of gunnery and other samurai arts.

The Ashikita Ogo’orizutsu rose to prominence in 1637, when they were called to arms in response to the Amakusa Shimabara Rebellion. Peasant farmers and Christian ronin in Shimabara rose up against their lord, spurred by harsh taxation, famine and religious persecution. These rebels successfully beat back the bakufu government army, threatening the surrounding domains, including Higo.

In 1638, the Ashikita Ogo’orizutsu musketeers were dispatched to Hara Castle, Shimabara to subdue the rebels. They successfully stormed the castle walls, and for their heroics, they were granted surnames, a stipend and permission to carry swords. Though many gun corps were disbanded, the ranks of the Ashikita Ogo’orizutsu continued to grow, reaching 430 members by the Meiji era, when they met their end in a deadly skirmish with troops from Choshu (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture).

The Ashikita Matchlock Gun Corps trains and performs in the Inatomi style to preserve the legacy of the Ashikita Ogo’orizutsu, and to share Ashikita’s history with locals and guests. Look out for one of their colorful, explosive performances in Kumamoto Prefecture, or maybe even closer to home.

(Photos courtesy of Ashikita Matchlock Gun Corps)

(Cooperation: CLAIR)


Hester Mullen

Hester is a British Coordinator for International Relations (CIR), currently working in Ashikita, Kumamoto Pref. She studied Japanese at the University of Edinburgh. In her spare time, she writes short stories, listens to music and attends a local Japanese painting class. She introduces British culture to local residents through articles, English classes and events.



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