What Was the Sword Hunt in Japan?

Close up of a katana or Japanese samurai sword.
A katana or long Japanese samurai sword. Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

In 1588, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second of Japan's three unifiers, issued a decree. Henceforth, farmers were forbidden to carry swords or other weapons. Swords would be reserved only for the samurai warrior class. What was the "Sword Hunt" or katanagari that followed? Why did Hideyoshi take this drastic step?

In 1588, the kampaku of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, issued the following decree:

1. Farmers of all provinces are strictly forbidden to have in their possession any swords, short swords, bows, spears, firearms, or other types of weapons.

If unnecessary implements of war are kept, the collection of annual rent (nengu) may become more difficult, and without provocation uprisings can be fomented. Therefore, those who perpetrate improper acts against samurai who receive a grant of land (kyunin) must be brought to trial and punished. However, in that event, their wet and dry fields will remain unattended, and the samurai will lose their rights (chigyo) to the yields from the fields. Therefore, the heads of the provinces, samurai who receive a grant of land, and deputies must collect all the weapons described above and submit them to Hideyoshi’s government.

2. The swords and short swords collected in the above manner will not be wasted. They will be used as rivets and bolts in the construction of the Great Image of Buddha. In this way, farmers will benefit not only in this life but also in the lives to come.

3. If farmers possess only agricultural implements and devote themselves exclusively to cultivating the fields, they and their descendants will prosper.

This compassionate concern for the well‑being of the farms is the reason for the issuance of this edict, and such a concern is the foundation for the peace and security of the country and the joy and happiness of all the people... Sixteenth year of Tensho [1588], seventh month, 8th day

Why Did Hideyoshi Forbid Farmers from Carrying Swords?

Prior to the late sixteenth century, Japanese of different classes carried swords and other weapons for self-defense during the chaotic Sengoku period, and also as personal ornaments.

However, at times the people used these weapons against their samurai overlords in peasant revolts (ikki) and the even more threatening combined peasant/monk uprisings (ikko-ikki). Thus, Hideyoshi's decree was aimed at disarming both the farmers and the warrior monks.

To justify this imposition, Hideyoshi notes that farms end up untended when the farmers revolt and have to be arrested. He also asserts that the farmers will become more prosperous if they concentrate on farming rather than on rising up. Finally, he promises to use the metal from the melted-down swords to make rivets for a Grand Buddha statue in Nara, thus securing blessings to the involuntary "donors."

In fact, Hideyoshi sought to create and enforce a stricter four-tier class system, in which everyone knew their place in society and kept to it. This is rather hypocritical, since he himself was from a warrior-farmer background, and was not a true samurai.

How Did Hideyoshi Enforce the Decree?

In the domains that Hideyoshi controlled directly, as well as Shinano and Mino, Hideyoshi's own officials went house to house and searched for weapons. In the other domains, the kampaku simply ordered the relevant daimyo to confiscate the swords and guns, and then his officers traveled to the domain capitals to collect the weapons.

Some domain lords were assiduous in collecting all of the weapons from their subjects, perhaps out of fear of uprisings. Others deliberately did not comply with the decree. For example, letters exist between members of the Shimazu family of the southern Satsuma domain, in which they agreed to send a paltry 30,000 swords up to Edo (Tokyo), even though the region was famed for the long swords carried by all adult males.

Despite the fact that the Sword Hunt was less effective in some regions than others, its general effect was to solidify the four-tier class system. It also played a role in the cessation of violence after Sengoku, leading into the two and a half centuries of peace that characterized the Tokugawa shogunate.