A shooting martial art? Samurai with guns? Yes. That’s houjutsu.
Matthew Okuhara is a British veteran now living in Matsumoto, Japan. "I first got involved with the Matsumoto Gun Corps in 2016", he recollects. "I’d been involved with martial arts for quite some time before but this was mostly a MMA kind of thing... SPEAR as well, if you’ve heard of it."
"What I had been doing really removes the enjoyment from martial arts" he continues. "I think to make the most of anything, you need to not only understand what you’re doing, but also, enjoy it."
The Matsumoto Gun Corps are a rare breed as far as martial artists go. Samurai are normally associated with sharp swords and close combat. Indeed, you will see the team wearing katana and wakizashi - but they will also be carrying 'tanegashima' guns. So named after the small island of Tanegashima in southern Japan.
These matchlock guns are no longer produced - going some way to explaining the rarity of this martial art.
The practitioners of houjutsu, or gunnery are all custodians of rare Edo era firearms and samurai armour.
"It’s more than re-enactment or display. It’s about preserving history. Matsumoto Castle was designed with this ‘new’ warfare in mind and the tactics and equipment reflect that", says Okuhara.
"Our main focus is to not only be the best gun team in Japan, but to also be the world experts on tanegashima and the skills of warring states period."
Introduced in 1543, the matchlock gun changed warfare in Japan forever. It wasn’t long before lords and generals began training and equipping their armies with firearms. One advantage was that whereas it took a lifetime to train a samurai; a foot soldier (or ashigaru) could be trained in mere months.
The samurai that lead the common men into battle carried ornate and powerful tanegashima - some using three times as much gunpowder per shot. They were not only expected to command troops of ashigaru, but to also identify and eliminate high priority targets - first by gun and then by sword.
The heavier guns helped shoot through cover, walls and armour. At a famous battle at Nagashino - the highly skilled and feared Takeda cavalry were all but wiped by the gunners of the Tokugawa.
"‘This is what the Matsumoto Gun Corps is all about, today", continues Okuhara. "We train in the tactics and skills of the time, equip ourselves the same and research the heritage that has been left to us."
Gun samurai, as they are sometimes known can be found in several cities in Japan. All of these cities have a strong connection with matchlock warfare.
As a ‘western samurai’ Matthew Okuhara is seen as a bit of an oddity within the gunnery community. It was hard at first’ he says. ‘But I also have a strong connection to the city as well and more than anything I’m willing to commit myself to what we do.’
Commitment to your practice is of course a driving and fundamental factor in any martial art. You can find out more about tanegashima and the Matsumoto Gun Corps at http://www.gunsamurai.com or by using social media.