Though Japan’s “giving up the gun” after the unification of Japan into the Tokogowa Shogunate in the early 1600’s is a subject of considerable controversy among military historians , it was only recently that I became aware that Japan had not only given up the gun, but also the wheel , during that very same time period.
There are at least two explanations for the disappearance of the gun (and, presumably, for the disappearance of the wheel). The first is that Japan’s traditionalist culture rejected these technologies in favor of the traditional old ways of fighting by sword, and presumably working by hand rather than using wheels to carry. The second explanation is that the uneasy political settlement of the Tokagowa victory, which led to the entrenchment of a small political elite with hostile xonophobia towards Christianity as well as openly reactionary aims, led to the rejection of technologies that could overthrow the political culture. It is that second explanation that I hold to–I argue that there was nothing “traditionalist” about Japanese culture as a whole but that Japan, from 1600 to 1867, was saddled with a corrupt hierarchial regime that deliberately rejected technology (like the gun or the wheel) that would have made work or resistance easier for peasants, which would have been a threat to the rule of the shogunate.
This is not an idle threat–once Japan was forced open to the influence and trade of the West after Commodore Perry’s visit in 1853, the Shogunate was on borrowed time, falling to a revived imperial system with imperialistic and militaristic aims that lasted itself from 1867 to 1945, before falling to the world’s only example (so far) of atomic warfare. Though the Japanese cult of the samurai has been romanticized in movies, including the Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai, life for the peasants of Japan prevented from social mobility to preserve the insecure egos of the samurai class was unpleasant and unjust. The beautifully crafted weapons and pleasant lifestyles of the daimyo and samurai of Japan were, after all, built on the backs of overtaxed and overburdened peasant laborers, whose task became harder as technologies that would have made their lives easier were shoved down the memory hole.
What does this example tell us? For one, it tells us that political culture has a highly important role in the preservation and transmission of technology. Under special conditions, especially relative isolation and the absence of foreign military pressure, the interests of a political elite in preserving their power may lead to the abandonment of technologies in order to preserve a repressive rule over the common people. This lesson obviously has a great deal of relevance outside of Tokogowa-era Japan.
Why would a political culture deliberately reject useful technologies? In the case of Japan, these technologies were rejected by its political culture simply because those technologies were most useful to the wrong sorts of people. Both the gun and the wheel, in different ways, thwarted the elitist aims of the Tokogowa shogunate. Swords and horses take a great deal of time to learn how to use and a great deal of money to obtain, and are much easier to control with an aristocratic elite than carts (which might allow mobility to peasants, as well as the ability to carry large amounts of goods, allowing peasants to accumulate goods and wealth, potentially) or guns (which can be used with much less training than the sword, and which would threaten the rule of Japan by a small elite of samurai).
Thus, because of their elitist culture, Japan engaged in a task functionally equivalent to a European nation shutting itself off from technology for over 250 years in order to preserve a medieval feudal regime, including serfdom and the cult of chivalry. Japan was only able to get away with it because it was so distant from potential threats. China’s expansionism during the period was a land-based one against the last Mongol Empire of the Dzungars. The expansionism of the west in East Asia was in a lull from the late 1500’s until the mid 1800’s, and was at first focused on China rather than Japan. Korea was likewise a hermit kingdom during this period as well, a policy which suited its Chinese overlords quite well. No European nation would have been able to enact such a policy, or else it would have been quickly overrun by the numerous expansionistic powers of age in Europe.
What lessons can we learn from this example? For one, we can learn that not all societies are devoted simply to the advancement of technology or even the preservation of such technologies they know (even things as basic to us as wheels and firearms). Rather, political elites are prone to preservation of their control by drastic means, especially if they feel insecure internally and have no external threats to keep them honest. Political cultures themselves often have no particular interest in serving the well being of the people, but have a paramount interest in preserving their own power and status. Without the active pressure of competition with other nations and the power of its own people, a political elite will try to force its people to give up the gun, the wheel, or anything else that may threaten their hold on power.
 Stephen Morillo with Michael F. Pavkovic, What Is Military History? (Cambridge UK: Polity Press, 2006), 90-92.