Isle of Beauty, Land of Progress
Tanegashima is an isolated island off the southeast coast of Kyushu, Japan. It’s also the nation’s main spaceport, where rockets are assembled and launched into space. They carry satellites aloft and place them into orbit, and send pods with supplies up to the International Space Station. The island holds a special place in the hearts of the Japanese as a land of pristine beauty, a natural habitat for loggerhead sea turtles, and an agriculture-based corner of the country that still does things the ways of old.
Tanegashima is also known as an isle that’s inhabited by people with a forward-looking approach to technology and progress. It has the distinction of being the place where the first firearms were introduced into Japan. On a promontory near the site of Nishimura village, a weathered stone marks the spot where, on August 25, 1543, two Portuguese merchants, after being blown off course by a typhoon, disembarked from a Chinese junk and stepped into history.
A Shot Heard Round Japan
Using a stick to write mutually understandable Chinese ideographs in the sand, an educated Chinese passenger explained to the Japanese that the two passengers were “Namban” or “Southern Barbarians,” who came from a continent many leagues distant from Japan and China. Though traders, the three came with no goods to trade but were armed with a type of matchlock rifle know as the espingarda or aquebus. They made a profound impression on their astounded hosts through a demonstration of marksmanship. A fascinated witness to the event wrote an account: “…they carried something straight on the outside with a passage inside, and made of a heavy substance…. Grip the object in your hand, compose our body, and closing one eye apply fire to the aperture. The explosion is like lightnight and the report like thunder.”
With Japan in the midst of a prolonged civil war, the islanders immediately grasped the implications: the matchlock muskets of the Portuguese could cut down the most skilled swordsman from a safe distance and fire projectiles that could penetrate light armor. By some strange hand of providence, Tanegashima proved the ideal base for manufacture of the weapons, as it possessed extensive deposits of high-grade iron sand, which was smelted and supplied to a corps of ironmongers who had long been engaged in the production of tools, farm implements, harpoons, cutlery and other products.
Some of the metal smiths who produced these matchlocks were no strangers to weaponry, being of the samurai, or warrior, class. Thus, Tanegashima was destined to become the place that reproduced and refined the matchlock rifles, transferred the technology to other weapon-producing areas in Japan, and by 1549, were being used on the battlefield. To this day the name Tanegashima is synonymous with these matchlock rifles.