Samurai Encounter with Western Science and Technology

Infancy under the Isolation Policy

In the mid nineteenth century, Japan was a highly organized feudal society that had been governed by clans under the strict control of the Tokugawa Shogunate for more than two centuries. They had a policy to regulate the free production of arms and weapons, contact with foreigners, trade and commerce and Christianity. In particular, since 1635, the Shogunate banned the construction of large vessels that could sail to the high sea, therefore Bezaisen, small wooden sailing vessels with a single mast, were the typically available ships for interisland coastal transportation services. In June 1853 four ships of the United States Far Eastern Squadron, commanded by Commodore Perry, arrived in Edo Bay. The sudden appearance of four warships, known as Black Ships, alerted the Tokugawa Shogunate to shift its seclusion policy to open the country to the outside world.

The Shogunate Undertook the Construction of Navy

Lifting the ban of large vessel shipbuilding in 1853

Responding to Commodore Perry’s visit, the Shogunate abolished the ban on the large-scale construction of ships in 1853 and planned the navy with an aspiration of building the oceangoing gunboat and encouraged clans to construct Western style warships. Samurai in feudal clans sought access to Western science and technology from Dejima in Nagasaki out of fear of being colonized by the ‘Western gunboat’. South West Clans who felt the feeling of impending crisis after the Opium Wars between Britain and China were quick to react to the Shogunate’s encouragement. Their first response was the trial and error experimentation in iron making for cannon and shipbuilding based on the Western textbook and copying the example of the western ship. In response to Perry’s arrival, the Shogunate established the Nagasaki Naval Training Institute in 1855 and Nagasaki Foundry (later named as Nagasaki Ironworks: predecessor of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries) the marine engine repair facility in 1857 with the help of the Dutch their friendly Western ally.

Feudal Samurai’s Encounter with Western Science

Trial and Error attempt at shipbuilding and iron making based on Western textbooks and copying the example of Western ships

Dutch General Ulrich Huguenin authored a technical manual that described how to make iron cannon. With Huguenin’s book in hand, the Clans and Shogunate rushed to build the blast furnaces and reverberatory furnaces in a trial and error experimentations. Making iron cannon was unsuccessful, because pig iron made by the Japanese Tatara method was unsuitable for arms and cannon. Until the end of the Edo period, iron technology in Japan was based on this traditional method of iron sand smelting and forging. There was little industrial demand, and also a limited supply of iron, therefore traditional iron production was sufficient to cater for such requirements. That was the encounter of Samurai in feudal society with Western science and technology.