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Ashigaru: Foot Soldiers of Feudal Japan

nono umasy

The Ashigaru were essential foot soldiers in feudal Japan, primarily serving during the Sengoku period (1467-1615 CE). Their role evolved from simple peasant warriors into a well-organized military force that significantly influenced the outcomes of numerous battles. Initially, Ashigaru were recruited from the lower peasant classes to supplement the samurai, Japan's elite warrior class. Over time, they became more professional and crucial in the composition of Japanese armies.

Chapter 1: Origins and Evolution of the Ashigaru

The origins of the Ashigaru can be traced back to the Kamakura period (1185-1333 CE), where they first emerged as auxiliary troops supporting the samurai class. Initially, these foot soldiers were primarily peasants, called upon during times of war to serve temporarily under local lords or samurai. Their role was minimal and mostly limited to basic support tasks and rudimentary combat duties, equipped with whatever weapons they could fashion themselves or were provided, often merely sticks and farm tools.

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As Japan transitioned into the Muromachi period (1336-1573 CE), the use of Ashigaru began to evolve from these temporary levies into a more structured and vital component of feudal armies. The continuous state of warfare known as the Sengoku period (1467-1615 CE) necessitated a more reliable and permanent military force. Daimyos, competing fiercely for power and territory, began to see the value in maintaining a standing army that included well-organized units of Ashigaru. This period marked a significant transition in the recruitment, training, and status of these foot soldiers.

© Angus McBride

Accompanying their increased military significance was the evolution in their equipment and armor. Initially equipped with rudimentary protection, Ashigaru started to receive better armor as their role expanded. By the late Muromachi period, many wore do-maru or haramaki, types of cuirass that offered better protection while allowing flexibility and mobility. The introduction of the tanegashima (matchlock gun) in 1543 CE further transformed the Ashigaru, transitioning them from spear and bow bearers to gunners. This shift was not just a change in weapon technology but marked a strategic evolution in battlefield tactics, emphasizing volley fire and coordinated maneuvers.

The development of the Ashigaru's armor and weaponry reflected their growing importance and the changing nature of warfare in Japan. As they transitioned from temporary levies to a professional force, their equipment became standardized and more sophisticated, mirroring their enhanced military role and the increasing demands of warfare dynamics during this tumultuous period in Japanese history.

Chapter 2: The Ashigaru’s Role in Warfare

The Ashigaru played a pivotal role in warfare during feudal Japan, especially as their tactical employment evolved with changing military strategies. Their use in various formations and the adoption of new combat tactics, particularly with the introduction of firearms, significantly impacted major battles throughout the Sengoku period.

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One of the critical transformations in the use of Ashigaru was their incorporation into mixed units with samurai, leading to diverse and flexible battle formations. The Ashigaru were often positioned in the front lines due to their numbers, serving as the main force to engage the enemy initially, while samurai executed more specialized maneuvers. A typical formation was the "Yari no ana" (spear square), where Ashigaru spearmen would create a defensive square with spears pointed outward, protecting the gunners within as they reloaded.

© Angus McBride

Case Study: The Ōnin War (1467-1477 CE)

The Ōnin War serves as an early example of the Ashigaru's role in larger conflicts, marking the beginning of the Sengoku period. Although still primarily spear and bow users, the Ashigaru were crucial in sieges and skirmishes throughout Kyoto. Their numbers and relatively quick mobilization allowed daimyos to exert control over contested territories rapidly. The prolonged conflict demonstrated the necessity of having a reliable and sizable force of Ashigaru, influencing their more formal incorporation into the armies of the period.

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Case Study: The Battle of Sekigahara (1600 CE)

The Battle of Sekigahara, which was pivotal in establishing Tokugawa Ieyasu’s shogunate, highlighted the strategic use of Ashigaru on a massive scale. Ieyasu’s forces included a significant number of Ashigaru, equipped with matchlock guns. Their deployment in carefully planned formations allowed them to execute volleys of gunfire that devastated enemy lines. The effective use of these foot soldiers in such formations was instrumental in Tokugawa's decisive victory.

The impact of the Ashigaru on the outcomes of these key conflicts was profound. Their growing prominence was reflected not just in their numbers, but also in their increasing military effectiveness. As Ashigaru units became more integral to the strategies employed by daimyos, their influence on the battlefield grew correspondingly. Their role in significant battles throughout the Sengoku period not only defined the military tactics of the time but also underscored their evolution from auxiliary peasant forces to critical components of feudal Japanese armies. Their effective use directly correlated with the rise and fall of many daimyos and was instrumental in the eventual unification of Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate.

Chapter 3: Social and Economic Impact of the Ashigaru

The socio-economic background of the Ashigaru was predominantly rooted in the peasant class, making their recruitment a significant aspect of feudal Japanese society. Initially, these foot soldiers were farmers and villagers, drafted during times of need and returned to their fields once conflicts ceased. However, as continuous warfare became the norm during the Sengoku period, many Ashigaru transitioned into a more permanent military role. This shift not only changed their individual lives but also had broader economic and social implications.

Economic Implications of Maintaining an Ashigaru Troop

Maintaining an Ashigaru troop involved significant economic considerations for a daimyo. As these soldiers became a standing force, the costs associated with their upkeep grew. Land allocations were one of the primary methods of compensation; Ashigaru were often given small plots of land for their service instead of a regular salary. This practice not only secured their loyalty but also tied them economically to their lord's prosperity. Additionally, the need to equip these troops with armor, weapons, and supplies led to an increased focus on domestic production capacities. Local industries that produced weapons, armor, and other military supplies received a substantial boost, which in turn affected local economies and supported regional development.

Changes in Social Mobility for Ashigaru and Their Families

The rise of the Ashigaru had significant implications for social mobility within feudal Japan. As the importance of these foot soldiers increased, so did their status within society. From mere peasant warriors, Ashigaru could rise through the ranks, and in some instances, they or their descendants were granted samurai status. This elevation was not merely symbolic; it included perks such as better armor, weapons, and training, as well as increased social respect and rights. Moreover, the families of Ashigaru also benefited from their improved status and economic stability, contributing to subtle shifts in the rigid social hierarchy of the time.

One prominent example of Ashigaru achieving significant social mobility is Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who rose from a peasant background to become one of Japan’s most powerful daimyo and ultimately the de facto ruler of Japan. His rise was facilitated by his initial service as an Ashigaru, which provided him the opportunity to display his military prowess and leadership skills. Hideyoshi’s story is often highlighted as a testament to the potential for upward mobility that the Ashigaru class offered during this tumultuous period.

The Ashigaru’s role thus extended beyond the battlefield, influencing the socio-economic fabric of feudal Japan. Their rise from humble origins to key military components facilitated not only their personal mobility but also supported the broader economic base of their regions through increased military spending. This dual impact of the Ashigaru highlights their importance not just in military terms but also in shaping the social and economic landscape of the period.

Chapter 4: Daily Life and Culture of an Ashigaru

The daily life of an Ashigaru during feudal Japan was shaped by the demands of military service, yet it was punctuated with periods of peace that allowed for cultural expressions and personal development. Living conditions, training routines, and the overarching influence of Bushido significantly impacted their day-to-day activities and their perception in society.

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Daily Life and Living Conditions

Ashigaru typically lived in barracks or communal quarters near their lord's castle when not on campaign. These quarters were modest, reflecting their status below the samurai. Daily life involved rigorous training to master various weapons, particularly spears and later matchlock guns. They also engaged in physical fitness and tactical drills to ensure readiness for battle. When not training or fighting, Ashigaru were often employed in constructing fortifications, repairing castles, and other manual labor tasks required by their daimyo.

Their diet was simple, mainly consisting of rice, vegetables, and occasionally fish. This basic diet was supplemented by whatever they could grow or forage, a necessity in times of war when resources were scarce. The communal aspect of their living arrangements fostered a strong sense of camaraderie and unit cohesion, essential for maintaining morale during prolonged conflicts.

Influence of Bushido

Although primarily associated with the samurai, the principles of Bushido ("the way of the warrior") also influenced Ashigaru, especially as their role in military and social structures evolved. Principles such as loyalty, honor, and discipline became integral to their conduct. Ashigaru were expected to demonstrate loyalty to their lords and bravery on the battlefield, mirroring the expectations of higher-status samurai. This adherence to Bushido not only enhanced their effectiveness as soldiers but also elevated their standing within the military hierarchy.

Cultural Representations

Ashigaru have been depicted in various cultural forms, including literature, art, and folklore, which reflect their integral role in Japanese history. In literature, they are often portrayed in tales of battles and heroism, highlighting individual and collective valor. Traditional ukiyo-e prints and paintings sometimes depict Ashigaru in battle scenes or as part of the daily life in samurai estates, showcasing their presence in both war and peace. Folklore also includes references to Ashigaru, often idealizing their bravery and loyalty or portraying them in moral tales that emphasize the virtues of humility and service. These cultural representations helped to cement the image of the Ashigaru in the Japanese consciousness, illustrating their important role not just on the battlefield but in the cultural and social fabric of feudal Japan.

Chapter 5: Transformation and Decline of the Ashigaru

During the Edo period (1603-1868 CE), Japan experienced prolonged peace under Tokugawa shogunate rule, which fundamentally altered the role of the Ashigaru. This shift from constant warfare to relative stability led to significant transformations in their duties and ultimately contributed to the decline of traditional Ashigaru units.

Transition of Ashigaru Roles During the Edo Period

With the cessation of widespread warfare, the need for large standing armies decreased substantially. Ashigaru, who had been integral to military campaigns, found their roles shifting more towards law enforcement and administrative duties. Many served as local police, castle guards, and in other roles that helped maintain order within the domains. This transition saw Ashigaru taking on responsibilities that were previously outside the traditional scope of their military functions.

Factors Leading to Decline

The very peace that redefined their roles also led to the gradual obsolescence of traditional Ashigaru units. The stability of the Edo period reduced the need for extensive military forces, which in turn diminished the importance of maintaining Ashigaru in large numbers. Additionally, the socio-political landscape of Japan was evolving; the rigid class system that defined the feudal era began to face challenges as commerce and urbanization introduced new dynamics to Japanese society. Technological and organizational changes in military science and tactics also contributed to the decline of the Ashigaru. As Western influences started to penetrate Japan, there was a growing interest in modernizing the military, which emphasized more professional and technically skilled armies over the traditionally levied forces.

Disbandment During the Meiji Restoration

The final disbandment of Ashigaru units came during the Meiji Restoration in 1868, a period marked by profound transformation and modernization in Japan. The Meiji government sought to abolish the feudal structures that had governed Japan for centuries, including the samurai class. As part of these reforms, the traditional Ashigaru units were disbanded, and a national conscription ordinance was issued in 1873, establishing a modern, Western-style national army. This new army was based on compulsory service by all male citizens, thus eliminating the need for the Ashigaru as a distinct class of military servants.

The transformation and eventual decline of the Ashigaru reflect broader changes in Japanese society, from a war-torn feudal state to a unified nation-state pursuing modernization. Their story is a testament to the dynamic nature of military and social structures responding to the pressures of peace, economic change, and cultural shifts.


The Ashigaru were pivotal in shaping Japanese history, contributing significantly to military practices, social evolution, and cultural heritage. As foot soldiers originally drawn from the peasant class, they played crucial roles in numerous pivotal battles throughout Japan's feudal era, particularly during the Sengoku period. Their effective use of new technologies, like the matchlock gun, revolutionized Japanese warfare and demonstrated the strategic importance of organized, disciplined military units in achieving victory.

Socially, the rise of the Ashigaru facilitated a shift in Japan's rigid feudal structure, offering pathways for social mobility previously unavailable in such a stratified society. This not only altered individual lives but also influenced the broader societal norms, challenging and gradually changing the feudal hierarchy.

Culturally, the legacy of the Ashigaru persists in various forms of media and art, reflecting their enduring place in Japan's historical consciousness. They are commemorated through literature, film, and festivals, which celebrate and preserve their stories and contributions to Japanese culture.

Moreover, the transformation of the Ashigaru over time— from temporary levies to a professionalized military force—mirrors the broader transitions in Japanese society from the feudal era to modern times. Their adaptation to the demands of prolonged periods of war and subsequent peacetime roles under the Tokugawa shogunate exemplifies the dynamic nature of Japanese military and social history.

Further Reading

  • Ashigaru 1467–1649, Stephen Turnbull, Howard Gerrard, Osprey Publishing, 2001.
  • Bryant, Anthony J. (1994). Samurai 1550-1600. Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 978-1-85532-345-2.
  • Bryant, Anthony J. (2010). The Samurai: Warriors of Medieval Japan, 940-1600. Osprey.
  • Cartwright, Mark. "Sengoku Period". World History Encyclopedia.
  • Ratti, Oscar; Westbrook, Adele (1991). Secrets of the Samurai; A Survey of the Martial Arts of Feudal Japan. C. E. Tuttle. ISBN 978-0-8048-1684-7.
  • Samurai Armies 1467–1649, Stephen Turnbull, Osprey Publishing, 2008, ISBN 9781846033513.
  • Samurai: The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior, Clive Sinclaire, Globe Pequot, 2004.
  • Tanaka, Fumon (2003). Samurai Fighting Arts: The Spirit and the Practice. Kodansha International. ISBN 978-4-7700-2898-3.
  • Turnbull, Stephen (2001). Ashigaru 1467-1649. Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 978-1-84176-149-7.
  • War history of Japan: Chousen-eki (日本戦史 朝鮮役) (1924) Staff headquarters of Imperial Japanese Army /ISBN 4-19-890265-8
  • War in the early modern world, Jeremy Black, Taylor & Francis, 1999.
    Warriors of Medieval Japan, Stephen Turnbull, Osprey Publishing, 2007.

Last Updated: Tue Apr 30 2024

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