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The first thing any Japanese will say if you mention Tanegashima today will almost certainly be "teppo, ne?" Guns, right?

One of the two rifles that arrived on Tanegashima in 1543.
The island became a major production centre,
thanks to its steel manufacturing prowess.
(Tanegashima Development Centre)

Sometime in the mid 1500’s, most commonly thought to be in the year 1543, two Portuguese were shipwrecked on Cape Kadokura at the southern tip of Tanegashima. The Chinese trading vessel they were sailing on was blown off-course en route to the Ryukyu Kingdom of present-day Okinawa, and although not official emissaries theirs is the first recorded contact between Japanese and Europeans. In the Europeans' possession was an item that would change the history of Tanegashima and the history of Japan: the matchlock rifle.

With the aid of local interpreters the Portuguese were able to communicate with Tanegashima’s nobility through their Chinese shipmates. As the story goes they demonstrated their weapons to the then Lord Tanegashima by shooting a bird out of the sky. Lord Tanegashima and his retainers immediately recognised the importance of the technology and in one of the great windfalls of early sailing adventures paid the Portuguese a huge sum for the two weapons in their possession, said to be more than a million dollars in today’s money. It gives some idea of the vast wealth steel had brought to the island at the time, and the respect reserved for shipwrecked guests.

Tanegashima’s manufacturing prowess at the time was such that within a few short years, once the challenge of barrel-rifling had been overcome, tens of thousands of guns were manufactured on Tanegashima (in Japan, guns became known as tanega-shima). The skills required for manufacturing weapons were learned and taken to Osaka, where production expanded. Firearms were soon to be used to great effect by warlords of the era, particularly by Oda Nobunaga in his quest to unify the entire country. The rest, as they say, is history.

For centuries sword-making, edge tools and gun manufacture were key industries on Tanegashima, and although it had played a key role in the way the Warring States Period unfolded, the island was for all intents and purposes removed from the troubles of mainland Japan. Tanegashima never saw war or battles, and the people of the island continued in their long-standing regard for study and other peaceful pursuits.