In 1543 the first Westerners landed in Japan, bearing guns; within a decade or two, Japanese gunsmiths were not only making the new weapon, they had radically improved it (by, for one, devising a waterproof cover to enable a matchlock--the model of that era--to be fired in the rain); as of 1575, the gun had bested the sword, no mean feat in Japan, and Japanese weaponry was arguably ahead of European. . . after 1637, the Japanese turned their backs on guns for over 200 years--until Perry's arrival put them in the line of fire. This extraordinary and little-known circumstance, history's one instance of successfully turning back the clock, provides Noel Perrin with evidence that it can be done and disarming proof of Japanese sagacity. The Japanese were not alone, he notes, ""in discovering that progress in weapons (a) meant more and faster killing, and (b) diminished human stature""; but the European backlash against firearms came to naught. Perrin explores the reasons why the Japanese alone followed through (including their strong aesthetic preference for swordplay over gunplay), but readers will be at least equally intrigued by the slow, patient, non-disruptive manner in which guns were in effect abolished--without ever being officially proscribed. It's a slip of a book, bulked out instructively and amusingly with some of those illustrations that the Japanese have traditionally made of every process, technique, or occasion (yes, you can see the rain covers and the proper, ungraceful gun positions); and amplified by discursive footnotes and a bibliography as wide-ranging as the brief text. Anyone with a spare hour and the least historical curiosity will find this a rare treat.