Japanese armies during the samurai era is a huge topic, too broad to be discussed in a single history lesson due to the Samurai era itself being too broad. In fact, during the earlier stages there were no professional soldiers to speak of, just plain farmers and villagers who either joined or were drafted into service of their lords during an event of a conflict. As the years progressed however they slowly became more organized turning into semiprofessional soldiers while maintaining their peace time professions. This post will be introducing the common infantry type and their weapons used during Oda Nobunagas time (8th Century).
Who is Oda Nobugana?
It is often argued that Oda Nobunaga is the most important figure in Japanese history, given what he achieved throughout his life this isn’t far from the truth. He is a notable Japanese lord who quickly rose to power in mid 1500s after his father died and secured rule over the Oda clan after defeating his younger brother in an internal power struggle. He is often depicted as a brilliant strategist and a lover of fire arms (A concept relatively new during that time in Japan bought by Europeans).
After securing power he subjugated most of Japan very rapidly, using castle fortification concepts to his advantage and forming new military units comprising of long pike men and fire arm brigades. Both of these gave him an edge over his enemies as these weapons are both easier for farmers to pick up and be trained on. He was also very interested in western culture and obsessed with gun powder/rifles brought by the westerners, using these he captured almost all of Japan but was betrayed by one of his top generals Akechi Mitsuhide near the end. He made his last stand at Honoji castle where he perished in the great fire.
During his time, the infantry used by him and other clans were diverse and complicated but can be divided into simple categories. Keep in mind this article will not be describing each type in great detail as there were many types of Samurai and Japanese infantry who differed slightly from one another, additionally their armies also included mercenaries. As such the classification will be done on a generalized level.
Infantry of the Japanese Clans:
Samurai (Can be classified into two)
1: Head Samurai
2: Battle Samurai
Head Samurais were considered elite of the elite both in skill and status, they were well armored highly skilled in swordsman ship and were also considered expert marksmen who trained their entire lives on a certain weapon meanwhile maintaining proficiency on multiple other weapons. Generally commanding officers who fought in battle along with the few men under their command they were regarded as the true Samurai. Although most of the time they were mounted on horses while in command hence they can also come under cavalry classification.
Battle Samurais were the main elite infantry fighting units who were younger versions of head samurais and less influential in status (It is important to know that they were not fixed as a class before Edo period that comes may years after Odas time). Regardless they were also well armored highly skilled fighting units who fought with whatever best suited them, generally a short spear. In the image the battle samurai stand behind their Daimyo (Lord) illustration taken from the movie “The Last Samurai”.
They were basically local farmers or peasants who signed up for service under a land lord or a high class samurai and became the back bone of Samurai armies. The reasons they signed in varies such as regular pay, tax exemption, or the promise of loot, usually a combination of all. Their gear, and weapons depended entirely on the Lord they served under (usually there’s less uniform equipment for these guys than samurai officers), typically light armor, metal or leather open disk helmets, with either a very long pikes, swords or bows, later on guns became more common under Oda Nobunaga. Ashigarus also generally wore Small banners (basically their clans flag) called Sashimono on their backs during battle for identification, morale and psychological warfare purposes.) They can be divided into multiple general categories:
1: Yari Ashigaru
2: Naginata Ashigaru
3: Yumi Ashigaru
4: Swords Ashigaru
5: Tanegashima Ashigaru
The Yari ashigaru were basically soldiers armed with long pikes becoming the most common type of Ashigaru used on the battle field. They were moderately armored and armed (Depends on the lord’s wealth) and were the soldiers of choice to be used as standard because the pike is easier and very effective to be used in large formations. They would most commonly charge or stay in formation when charged upon pointing their Yari (Japanese pike) and in close combat situation they would work in pairs of small groups to cover each other and attack at the same time.
These Ashigaru were also pike soldiers of sorts the only difference being they were armed with Naginatas (A very long pike sort of weapon with a blade instead of pointy tip) and generally stronger to be able to operate these heavy weapons. Of course this meant they were comparatively more trained and armored than the standard other Ashigarus types. A common tactic they used in formation was hold their heavy spears up high horizontally then smash down at the same time.
Another rather standard type of ashigaru was the Yumi Ashigaru (Basically a bow wielding warrior). They were basic bow men whose importance gradually dropped after the introduction of fire arms but they still remained important for fast paced long range attacks as the guns took longer to reload than the bow. They were also moderately armored and had a side knife or sword to protect them. Another big protection was use of another person in front of the archer holding a big shield.
These Ashigarus were rather rare on the battle field armed with many kinds of swords and were rather better trained than other close range class Ashigarus. They were light fast paced infantry who usually carried an extra side blade in case the first one breaks. Their armor was about the same as Yari Ashigarus. Generally, they were limited to ones who could afford and provide their weapons for the selves. The most common sword types used by them were either katana, tachi, odachi, wakizashi, or tsurugi. These infantries would also typically carry a secondary weapon of their choice as swords were only used in highly closed quarters combat and could potentially break given their thin construction.
Tanegashima ashigaru were basically the rifle wielding marksmen who worked together in formations to create a barrage of fire on big enemy formations. They were armed with the Tanegashima a match lock Japanese rifle modelled after the rifles they got from the Portuguese. They were rather lightly armored and the only defence they had been bamboos tied together into a thick but relatively light shield of sorts. They would slowly replace the Yumi ashigaru however they had one major drawback, the reload time of their weapons was too long.
More commonly known as a ninja the Shinobi were special forces/intelligence agents of sorts in lord’s armies. Their expertise in espionage, intelligence/counterintelligence and close quarters combat meant they were often given the most difficult tasks that cannot be done by normal soldiers. They were also covert agents whose operations included sabotage, infiltration, assassination and guerrilla warfare.
However, their covert methods of waging irregular warfare were generally deemed dishonorable and beneath the samurai, so they operated under low profile even when among friendly forces and only reported to the lords. (Point to note only a few ninjas were loyal to a lord like this, most were just temporary allies with lords whose villages or clans shared similar goals with the Lords)
Below are basic illustrations of Samurai and Ashigaru equipment, it is again important to note these are highly generalized and was not the case for all lord’s armies.