Contrary to popular belief, Japan of the Edo era, (1603-1868) was a very peaceful place. By one estimate, the total executions for all of Japan was lower than that of the city of Paris during the same period. Murders and other violent crimes were rare, women’s rights and gay rights were so advanced that they actually declined when Japan started to Westernize. Some conservative Japanese politicians are now trying to roll back women and gay rights, but such moves are actually not conservative, or even reactionary, at all if you take a longer view of Japanese history.
The samurai were generally under-employed in this time of peace. The highest ranking ones became paper pushing bureaucrats, the lowest ranking ones became land-owning farmers, the ones in the middle took various jobs in public service ranging from art curating to law enforcement. That does not account for the so-called ronin, masterless samurai, who had a choice of keeping their samurai status, making it practically impossible to find common employment, or to renounce their samurai status and forfeit their privileges, meaning that they would have to bow to anyone with a sword for the rest of their lives and for future generations. The shogun’s government was not much help if you were a ronin. Although it was never made explicit, it seemed that they preferred that ronin would choose to become commoner. They were wary of too many people loitering about with the right to bear arms.
It was the birth right of the samurai to carry a sword. Two swords, in fact; a katana for dueling and a shorter wakizashi as a spare. Although the samurai were forbidden from drawing their swords under pain of death over a wide spectrum of conditions, it was an extremely important symbol of their authority for centuries. In theory, the samurai could use their sword to protect their honor if anybody looked at them in a funny way. In practice, you could were not permitted to draw your sword in government buildings and a variety of public spaces, and even when you could, you had to issue a long series of warnings before actually drawing your sword. Any violation of these rules could have dire consequences.
One of many rules was koiguchi san sun. Literally, it meant “three sun (about 9 centimeters) from koiguchi“. Koiguchi (carp’s mouth) was the opening of the sheath, and it meant that the blade was drawn 9 centimeters out of the sheath. This was the threshold at which point the sword was officially “drawn”, even though most of the blade was still in the sheath. If you pulled your sword three sun out of the sheath at the wrong place at the wrong time, you could not only be ordered to commit suicide, but your entire family could become ronin for all future generations. Even if you pulled your sword at the right place for the right reasons, you and your family may face the same fate if you failed to kill your opponent. If a commoner insulted your honor, you had the noble right to kill him, but once the sword was drawn, you had to kill him or you had to commit suicide. On the other hand, if you did not draw your sword and forgave the commoner, you faced no punishment. If five commoners insulted you at once, you had to kill all five before the sword was sheathed again or face death. This all meant that if you were going to draw your sword, you had better have a very good reason for doing so.
There is an old fictional story in which a group of ruffians confronted a lone samurai. When the samurai put his hand on his sword, one of the ruffians shouted,
“If you fail to kill any one of us you are doomed!”
The samurai growled softly.
“Five, is it?”
The five ruffians backed down and left without confirming their number.
If two warriors were in confrontation, if the sword was three sun out of the sheath, it was grounds for retaliation. Some samurai could draw very quickly in what is called iaigiri and slice you in half in the same swift motion it took to draw the sword. You could not afford to wait until your attacker had completely drawn his sword. Thus, a sword was deemed officially drawn if it was only partly out of the sheath.
The rules were even more strict on guns during the Edo period. Just being seen with a gun at the wrong place could have gotten you killed. And if you pulled your gun out of the holster, it was the same thing as pulling your sword out of your sheath.
All these rules made Japan very peaceful. Trouble only started when foreigners started coming in. Most Europeans who came to Japan had come via the Indian Ocean and were utterly spoiled as the superior power in the Asian countries they visited along the way. By the time they reached Japan, they were quite accustomed to routinely threatening the Asian locals by drawing their weapons. Westerners were unaware what consequences a drawn weapon might bring in Japan, and the Japanese expected the foreigners to have the same kill-or-die intentions as themselves would have when they saw a weapon drawn.
Shortly before Japan closed its doors to foreigners in the 16th century, some Portuguese merchants, in an effort to beat down the price of silk they were trying to buy in the port of Hirado, had the bright idea of drawing their weapons to threaten the locals just when the samurai were stepping in to calm the quarrel. Over a dozen men died in a matter of minutes. The foreigners pulled out of Hirado and hence forth traded only at Nagasaki, which remained the only open port during Japan’s two centuries of isolation.
There were similar problems after Japan opened its ports following the visit of Commodore Mathew Perry. Sailors who landed in Japan behaved badly. They drew their weapons when they were not supposed to, expecting the locals to cower and do their bidding. Soon, limbs were lopped off Obi Wan style all over the country. The foreigners were quick to demand extraterritoriality after that, making themselves immune to Japanese law. The Japanese, unaccustomed to diplomacy, and thoroughly fed up by the misbehavior of the foreign sailors, took it to mean “You go hang your own assholes.” They were almost too glad to grant extraterritoriality to the foreigners. The unequal treaties that followed were not revoked until half a century later when Japan proved itself a modern power by defeating the Russians in war.
The impression of the vicious Japanese persisted much longer and was still in evidence after the end of the Second World War. But it all began because Western sailors could not keep their weapons under wraps.