I’m terrible at noting lyrics, even to songs I really like, until something else brings them to my attention. Here, it’s the fact that Vampire Weekend’s ‘Giving Up The Gun’ is on some level about Japanese history, something I’m actually reasonably familiar with. Though to be fair, ‘Tokugawa’ doesn’t stand out when it’s sung by Ezra Koenig quite as much as it might do with other, more straightforward artists.
So here there are references to swords, the rising sun, and the fading past, but the central idea is something even more specific:
“I got the idea for the song from a book my Dad gave me called Giving Up The Gun. It’s a history book about the time when Japan expelled all the foreigners from the country, closed off all trade, and stopped using guns and reverted back to the sword. It seems unimaginable now that humanity could willingly go back to an older technology. It got me thinking about whether you could give up the things that you have and go back to a simpler way of life.”
Naturally, the lyrical references abound in ambiguities: there is martial (and/or musical) strength in “wrists of steel”, a sense of identity in physical skill; but it certainly seems to me that “when I was 17” refers more to the idea of the modern youth than the older approach of manhood. The sound of “rifle hits” is also allegorical, bringing the subject of the song back to music - “I heard you play guitar/Down at a seedy bar/Where skinheads used to fight” - but it’s music through history, as indicated by the past tense. On the one hand, ”Tokugawa smile and garbage style” refers to the period of Japan’s isolation, and on the other, to something else again.
“You felt the coming wave/Told me we’d all be brave/You said you wouldn’t flinch” is classic samurai attitude, with a bit of Hokusai and/or Kamikaze thrown in. When I read the lyrics first, I though they were possibly referring to the samurai rebellion against the Meiji government of the 19th century, led by Saigo Takamori, who “the night before the final assault… behaved like a samurai of old, listening to the music of the Satsuma lute, and performing an ancient sword dance, and composing poetry”, the last of which summed up his obsolescence in the face of modernity:
If I were a drop of dew,
I could take shelter on a leaf tip
But being a man,
I have no place in this whole world
Giving Up The Gun is the tale of the original Tokugawan shogunate, and their self-imposed isolation from Dutch and Portuguese influence, rather than the later opening up and modernisation of the Meiji empire, but much of the culture is continuous. Conservatism of a sort is a theme here - “But in the years that passed/Since I saw you last/You haven’t moved an inch”; “You’re right back where you started from”. Locating either the guitarist or the warrior, they have seemingly reverted to their pasts.
Opposing this, and despite the conclusion of the book itself that “men are less the passive victims of their own knowledge and skills than most men in the West suppose”, the song urges progress (or at least motion - in which direction is onwards?) - “Go on, go on, go on” - but only in the best tradition of individualism, perhaps of creative and expressive freedom - “I see you shine in your own way”. So whether it’s really about guns or guitars, ‘Giving Up The Gun’ has a sense of history and of people’s place in it, and I really like that. Even if I can’t work out where the tennis fits in.