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Hojutsu, the Firearm-Based Samurai Martial Arts

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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Thanks mostly to Western pop cultures and Japanese Anime, our idea of a Samurai is oftentimes fantasized or idealized. The big screen often presented this fearless and honorable warrior, with nearly superhuman skills with the sword, and fiercely loyal to his superiors. But real life could be different. The historical Samurai might bring in a flawed, or sometimes an unrecognizable warrior that never resembled the fictional version. Nevertheless, even with the myths and hearsays being stripped, the mystique of the Samurai will always bring fascinations to the modern observers.

In my case, I find their expertise with other weapons fascinating.

Samurai warriors are always associated with the sword. But the notion that they completely relied on their swords is false. The Samurai was as practical as any warrior classes in their period. Meaning, when heading out in the battle, they carried more than bladed weapons. Swords were just sidearms. Pole weapons were preferred due to its reach. Plus, bows and arrows allowed a samurai to kill an adversary in a safe distance. And although the Samurai tachi, or katana had their places in the battlefield, pole weapons and archery equipment were more efficient when fighting on their other signature weapon; their horses.

But some people would be surprised that one of the most underrated weapons of the Samurai (at least for the modern-day fans) is also one of the most effective.

Firearms.

Yes, the samurai warriors and their ashigaru foot soldiers wielded them, with devastating effects. Maybe, the desire of modern fans to preserve the pure sword totting samurai made us overlooked the fact that they are also expert shooters. So much so that they made martial arts out of it.

The Guns of the Samurai

The Tanegashima.

The Tanegashima.

The Japanese were well aware of the existence of the gunpowder long before the arrival of European weapons. This is due to their proximity with China. And around 1270, primitive guns appeared, which was no more than metal tubes with neither triggers nor sights. These ancient cannons were the teppo. Western firearm technology eventually reached Japan through its interactions with the Portuguese, and soon, Japanese weaponsmith were able to churn out the tanegashima, a matchlock configuration of the harquebus.

Such firearms saw extensive use in the battlefields of Sengoku Period, with Oda Nobunaga and his gun totting troops laying waste to their enemies. But back then, firearms were awkward weapons. The range was limited and vulnerable to moisture and humidity. But firearms could be used with minimal training, unlike the bow and arrow, which made it ideal for infantry units consisting of farmers. In fact, archers and gunners fought side by side in opposing forces during the Sengoku Period, while the Japanese eventually learned to compensate for their slow firing and awkward firearms. Sustained fire was achieved by shooting in serials. By command, teppo units standing in formation will fire in series as the rest reloaded. Plus, a martial arts Hojutsu was developed, sort of as a form of training in handling and shooting such weapon.

Martial Arts for Guns

Demonstration of tanegashima shooting.

Demonstration of tanegashima shooting.

For most people exposed to modern pop cultures, martial arts with guns will bring in a mental image of a gangster with two pistols and shooting platoons of thugs in closed quarters. Science fiction movies further stylized this so called “Gun Fu” by adding a sort of dance-like movements. The term “Gun Kata” was later coined to describe this aesthetically pleasing form of shooting. In a nutshell, using your pistol (two of them) as a form of close quarter weapons while executing acrobatic and dance-like moves is how people will think of firearm-based martial arts. Though in real life, it is both impractical and reckless.

The samurai on the other hand had a real version of this so called “Gun-Fu.” But it lacks the flashy and acrobatic moves, and most of the time, the shooter stayed stationary. With the tanegashima as a new weapon back them, the Japanese then came up with ways on how to maximize the weapon’s potentials. Again, early matchlock guns were never perfect, and training drills were made in handling such weapon. In this way, the weapon could be fired quickly and accurately. Eventually, the training drills were formalized into a structured discipline, and the martial arts Hojutsu was born.

Hojutsu literally translates into “the art of the gunnery” or “art of shooting”. And like any shooting disciplines, accuracy of the shot is the emphasis here. Plus, it also helps the shooter reloads the slow firing tanegashima efficiently. And for a martial art that trains with a relatively modern weapon, like a firearm, it’s actually considered a ko-ryu (traditional school), or ko-budo since it predates Meiji Restoration of 1868. And below are the recognized schools of this art of gunnery:

- Inatomi-ryū

- Geki-ryū

- Ogino-ryū

- Tanegashima-ryū

- Tatsuke-ryū

- Seki-ryū

- Bue-ryū

- Morishige-ryū

- Yō-ryū

- Takashima-ryū

Drills

With emphasis on battlefield practicality, expect no flashy moves here. Yet, this art consisted of three points: developing a void mind, keeping a good posture to help raise the spirits, and keeping the other eye open when aiming at the target. It also employs breathing techniques to aid in proper shooting. In the case of the Takashima-Ryu, western firearm strategy was brough in which focuses on mass barrage over accuracy (introduced in later Tenpo period).

As for the shooting methods, various postures were adopted, each with different purposes. Each shooting position aims to distribute the power from different parts of the body. The shooter is also trained in ratios of gunpowder that varies in distance, caliber and even seasons.

To give you a better idea on the functions of this shooting art, I did a bit of research, and below are some excerpts from a Hojutsu school Morishige Ryu teaches. Proper etiquettes are observed, from entering the shooting range and the proper handling of weapons.

Tsubadai kneeling position. Photo from budojapan.com.

Tsubadai kneeling position. Photo from budojapan.com.

And like any Japanese martial arts, it also features kata. In this case, it’s not a type of simulated shadow fights arranged into dance-like choreography, but more on functional shooting drills from loading to aiming. Even the walk and turns serve a function, as it helps the shooters move in uneven terrain, while the turn allows them to bring the gun into a reloading position.

Shiroue position. Photo from budojapan.com.

Shiroue position. Photo from budojapan.com.

The kata also features various shooting positions, from standing, to kneeling, to even lying position. The sword also plays a role in shooting, as it serves gun support while firing, much like a modern rifle bipod.

Overall

There are also various firearm training methods that mirrors Hojutsu, while people who are exposed to range shooting noted that some of its aspects are still applicable today. Hojutsu was made for muzzle loading tanegashima, but the techniques so resemble modern-day rifle shooting. Soldiers trained as snipers also employed breathing techniques, the same way as what their samurai counterparts did. This is not surprising though. The weapons might be different, but the objective remains the same. To hit the target.

References

  1. Miliaresis, Grigoris (n.d.), "Fire! Morishige-ryu Hojutsu and matchlocks". budojapan.com.
  2. Lidin, Olof G. (2002). "Tanegashima: the arrival of Europe in Japan." NIAS Press

Comments

Mamerto Adan (author) from Cabuyao on October 04, 2021:

Thanks!

MG Singh from UAE on October 03, 2021:

Very interesting.I am fond of samurai warriors. Great exposition

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