There’s a popular, long-standing debate on the Internet as to which kind of sword is better, or at least which would win out over the other: a Japanese katana verses a European blade (the weapon varies according to the interests of the debaters – longswords, rapiers, etc.). Similar discussions theorize as to who would win a fight between a samurai or a European fencer. Debaters line up on both sides and argue that their chosen weapon or fighting style is superior.
The problem with both these viewpoints is that they tend to presume an almost mystical quality or superiority inherent in either the sword or the wielder, who they believe will generally (if not always) win when matched against the other. This ignores the human condition. No matter what country to go to, you’ll find high quality weapons and junk; master weapon smiths and poor ones; talented fencers and what we would charitably refer to today as “cannon fodder”. Depending on which combination of time period, gear, armour, level of skill, and — to be honest — the unforeseeable vagaries of luck, occur, it’s impossible to know how any particular
Rather than argue intangibles, I thought it would be more interesting to explore historical fact and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. This by looking at cases of actual combat as well as period comments about encounters between Europeans and Japanese from 1542 through to the beginning of the modern age when swords became ceremonial objects.
History of European / Japanese contact
Many find it surprising to discover that the first period of open contact between Europe and Japan lasted a little more a century, from the first contact in 1542 (a Portuguese merchant vessel blown ashore in Japan by a storm), to the institution of the Sokaku (Closed Country) Edicts in 1635 which closed Japan to Europeans, allowed only limited European trade at two ports, and forbade Japanese to travel.
It would be more than 300 years before open trade with the West would be re-established in the late 19th century.
During this first century of openness, it was the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch who had a lock trading in much of Asia, and the majority of contact with the Japanese. Many European sailors, merchants and soldiers traveled to Japan; most of these carried weapons at all times, rapiers being the weapon of choice. Dueling was common in Europe, for any — or even no — reason, to the point that there were fears of losing the young men of an entire generation. Laws were passed forbidding dueling; laws which were, in the main, ignored.
A similar situation existed in Japan, and until the Sword Hunt of 1588 everyone could carry weapons; an affront to personal honour could only be expunged by blood. The Imperial Regent (Kampaku Toyotomi Hideyoshi) instituted this Sword Hunt to secure his reign, ordering the confiscation of weapons from anyone other than members of the military, followed by several edicts meant to restrain banditry and prevent peasant revolts, forbidding the wearing of bladed weapons except by samurai or the military. Within a few decades this class system had become part of the fabric of Japanese life. Even then there were exceptions, as certain classes — such as merchants — were allowed the use of weapons to defend themselves and their merchandise from bandits.
It should also be noted that the Japanese weren’t sitting passively at home during this period either. Wako, or pirates, were common in Asian waters between the 13th and 16th centuries. Red Seal ships — Japanese armed trading vessels, licensed to trade between Japan, China, Korea and other Asian ports — sailed regularly from roughly 1600 to 1635; that some may have also indulged in a little piracy is a matter of discussion. Japanese mercenaries were used in various areas of Asia by both the Dutch and the English as part of the Namban Trade, Europeans being known as Nanban bōeki (Southern Barbarians): History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800 p223.
Readers of fiction will recognize this period as the setting for the novel Shogun by James Clavell. While the main protagonist of the story is the English sailor John Blackthorne, the story itself is loosely based on the real-life adventures of William Adams.
Reputation of the Japanese in Asia circa 16th century
Today the reputation of the samurai is well known, verging at times — thanks to movies — into the realms of myth and fantasy. In Asia of the 16th and early 17th century, the reputation of the Japanese was that of fearsome, unpredictable fighters, recorded both by European writers of the time and Asian scholars today using period sources:
“He was unaware that the Japanese had the reputation in the Indes for being a ‘people so desperate and daring that they are feared in all places’ and was ignorrant of the fact that all eastern ports demanded that any Japanese sailor coming ashore must first be disarmed'”.
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Giles Milton (2000), referencing an English encounter with Japanese wako in the early 17th century
“A Spanish royal decree of 1609 specifically directed Spanish commanders in the Pacific ‘not to risk the reputation of our arms and state against Japanese soldier'”.
This video provides some good information; the book mentioned and some of the quotes used appear later in this article
On the difference between duels and battles
There is a strong difference between a duel between two individuals — where the skill, armour, tactics and style of weapon of each duelist possess can be exercised to their utmost without outside influence — and what happens in a mass brawl or formal battle. In those scenarios, the skill and ability of each individual is subsumed into the whole; individual movement and action is limited or even tightly controlled.
In a melee one can be attacked from the sides or even behind while engaging an opponent in front; strong fighters can be overwhelmed by a group of weaker ones. In formal battles it is unit training, moral (esprit de corps) and the ability of the commanders which tend to be the the most important factors… there being a host of others. This, barring one side holding an extreme technological advantage over the other (guns verses swords, for example).
In looking at historical record — which, as has been said, tends to be written by the victors — we see few individual duels as such. In most cases there are reports by ship captains of attacks, of civilian authorities recording brawls or riots, or of colonial administrators or merchants recording raids. In few cases do those recording the incidents report their side losing. In the main we can presume European sailors and merchants were encountering Japanese merchants, common working people, and guards — either city guards or those hired by merchants. Thus we cannot presume that the most skilled warriors on either side were involved.
Before beginning the list of encounters, I would like to mention that I can’t take credit for original research in locating these quotes. This discussion / debate has been ongoing for more than a decade on various web forums. Part of the purpose of this article is to bring all these quotes / resources into one post. I you’re interested in the topic, the following discussion threads are highly recommended:
Many forums have their own discussions on topics surrounding European / Japanese contact and weapon comparisons. A search of the forums we list in our database will give you a wealth of insight and opinion
There are many more descriptions of sea battles between the Japanese and Europeans, but I’ve avoided listing them as these are heavy on the use of cannon and firearms to repel the attacks. Those I’ve included describe swordplay on an individual or group level.
“In either case he [Fernao de Souza] met with a sticky end, for he together with fourteen other Portuguese were killed in a brawl with Japanese at Hirado in 1561. That season there were no less than five Portuguese ships in Japan; one of which, commanded by a certain Afonso Vaz, went to Satsuma, where he was also killed in the port of Akune by some samurai,–accidentally according to Shimadzu, the local Daimyo.”
“…unbeknown to the English, the Japanese had, in the words of Michelborne, ‘resolved with themselves either to gaine my shippe or to lose their lives’. The smiles vanished, the laughter died and the Japanese suddenly transformed themselves into brutal ‘rogues’ who stabbed and slashed at their English adversaries. The crew of the “Tiger” had never faced such hostility and scarcely had a chance to resist before the deck was swarming with Japanese wielding long swords and hacking men to pieces. Soon they reached the gun room where they found Davis desperately loading muskets. ‘They pulled [him] into the cabin and giving him sixe or seven mortall wounds, they thrust him out of the cabin.’ He stumbled on the deck but the sword wounds had severed one of his arteries and he bled to death. Others, too, were in their final death throes and it seemed inevitable that the Tiger would shortly be lost.
It was Michelborne who saved the day. Thrusting pikes into the hands of his best fighters he launched a last-ditch Attack on the Japanese soldiers ‘and killed three or four of their leaders’. This disheartened the Japanese who slowly found themselves at a disadvantage. Armed with knives and swords, they were unable to compete with Michelbornes’s pikemen and found themselves driven down the deck until They stood en masse by the entrance to the cabin. Sensing their predicament, they let out a terrific scream and dashed Headlong into the heart of the ship.”
Note: The cavalry saber remained an effective weapon for mounted troops until the early 20th century; the following are comments by British stationed in Japan just prior to, or shortly after, the Meiji Restoration (1868) which brought the elimination of samurai as a class, though trained samurai were alive for decades afterwords.
““They have a very dangerous cut, which is made by the mere motion of unsheathing the sword, and takes effect at a distance where an inexperienced person would think himself safe.”
“In Japan, it was necessary for every man to carry a pistol; but the Japanese [with their swords] invariably got the better of every man carrying one, even when he had it in his hand… …I maintain the great fault in our swords is that they will not cut. Use them as much as you like, unless you have them specially sharpened the night before, they are useless. In the cut, our swords are useless in nine cases out of ten. The Japanese use two-handed swords; if we could use them, I should say cut by all means; for they never want a second cut.”
“On Military Equipment,” Journal of the Royal United Service Institution
cited in Swordsmen of the British Empire
In the main he is complaining on the poor quality of weapons issued to soldiers
“The sword is always carried at the side, and adepts in the use of it wound the moment it is drawn. The fatal stroke, upwards, is given in the act of drawing; and if the assailant is not disabled in the act, it is too late for defence.” In the case of the fatally wounded marine alluded to by Capt. Applin, “every cut had severed the member it was aimed at.”
“One sub-lieutenant two or three in used his drawn sword on his men when they hung back, cutting down in quick succession ; and then, realizing the hopelessness of such action, he gallantly advanced alone to meet the Japanese. He ran towards them till a bullet, one of the last remaining, struck him in the stomach; as he fell he stabbed himself with his sword sooner than fall into his enemy’s hands. Another Russian followed in shouting in defiance to the Japanese, and as he came on, a Japanese officer hurried to meet him. The two closed in an Homeric hand-to-hand in sight of the two armies and as they whirled their swords at each side rent the air with cheers. Now It seemed that the Russian was winning and the Russians thundered applause. Now again the Japanese had the upper hand, and hoarse ” Banzais ! ” rose from the Hiroshima infantry. Then the Russian went down before the skillful swordplay of his opponent, and a moment later he lay a corpse upon the hill. The Japanese officer ran calmly back to his line and took his place at the head of his men amidst a tumult of cheers, and almost at the same moment the long-looked-for ammunition arrived.
The star of Japan was now in the ascendant. The Japanese troops poured a terrible fire into their opponents, and instantly charged with the utmost resolution. For a moment the Russians stood ; bayonets were crossed ; a Japanese bayoneted a Russian and was immediately impaled on the bayonets of the Russian victim’s comrades. The officers fought with swords and revolvers, the Japanese officers making dreadful play with their sharp Samurai blades, and hewing off the limbs of their less skilful antagonists. But the combat was too unequal when one side could not use the rifle ; the Japanese speedily obtained the upper hand, forced the Russians from their trenches, and sent them reeling back in terrible confusion, while they poured into the retreating mass of infantry a decimating fire.”
There are various stories of Russian and Japanese officers engaging in duels during the Russian-Japanese war. Aleksandar Lekso Sajčić was said to have defeated a Japanese officer in a cavalry duel. Another Russian officer, at the head of a charge which was stopped by Japanese troops, refused to surrender, challenging a Japanese officer to come out and take him. The duel was witnesses by a Western journalist who reported it in his paper
“The thrust is not taught in their fencing school, but there is nothing in the swordsmanship in the world more terrible than the long sweeping cut which they are taught to deliver with lightning-like rapidity.”
“Maybe no recorded personal duel per se but the story about the Portuguese being banned from bringing swords (rapiers) ashore during the extensive trading exchanges in Kyushu is documented. The reason for the ban was linked to the fact that the Portuguese originally cut down so many samurai. The local samurai responded by having new swords made which were much lighter than the battle blades they normally carried. Later, another encounter occurred and a virtual small scale war ensued with many Portuguese dying in the skirmish. I know about this because a distant relative of my teacher actually took part in this bit of historical trivia. My teacher (Takamura Yukiyoshi) still owned
his relatives sword which was made specifically in response to the Portuguese sword tactics the samurai encountered in Kyushu. Like the famous Kogarasu Maru, this sword was double edged from about 5 inches to the kissaki but much lighter and faster. This design was adopted to allow a swift back-cut like the ones the Portuguese employed so effectively against the samurai with rapiers. Once armed with swords of this style, the samurai turned the tables even on the Portuguese in the second encounter. This is when the ban was finally instituted. The whole trading relationship was threatened….”
“In fact there are some records in our national historic archive of more than a dozen encounters of Portuguese soldiers and samurais. These encounters are very well described and detailed. All ended with the same result except one. The samurai was killed in some or wounded (but killing themselves afterwards in shame) the only register of a killed Portuguese soldier was because he had such an amount of sake in his blood that he couldn’t stand straight. The Samurai that killed him was killed in the next day in a sword duel with a Portuguese sailor in top condition…”