A basic primer for medieval Japan

May 18, 2008

By the sengoku jidai, Japanese armies exemplified the well-trained, well drilled medieval fighting force—remember, this was a country in which the martial discipline had prevailed and been exercised for four hundred years. Forces were constructed of missile and melee units, often used in combination as combined arms, with well-organised and drilled formations and extensive use and exploitation of volley fire with teppo (muskets introduced by Portuguese traders in 1543 and further developed and refined by the Japanese). As such, the units in the game represent complex collections of very capable cavalry and infantry.

Japanese cavalry were a true combined arms force: foot infantry directly supported mounted warriors in melee engagements, running alongside them as they charged into combat. Combined arms was also seen between various foot soldiers, so that teppo were often supported by ranks of pike wielding infantry, as made famous at the barricades of Nagashino.  Of course, not all forces on the battlefield were formally trained as professional or even semi-professional soldiers. The warrior monks were an amateur, but highly potent, military force, and their eradication became an obsession of the Oda Nobunaga, culminating in the devastation of Mount Hiei and its great fortress-monastery.

With all this in mind, each unit in the That Samurai Game brings distinct qualities and functions to a conflict. These units are described in some detail in the rules, both in their historical and game contexts, but keep in mind that the taxonomy offered reflects a representation of medieval Japan and its forces, not the final or only interpretation. 

I have included some more detail on two key units in That Samurai Game here:

Samurai Cavalry (light and heavy)

These units consist of heavily armed samurai cavalry supported by foot soldiers [Note: because of the combined arms nature of these units, their charge distance is limited]. Up until the mid-1500s, these cavalry units relied primarily on the yumi to engage enemy units, and as such they tended to skirmish with opposing forces rather than engage them in melee. Later, their main weapon of choice shifted to the long-spear, which was used much like a lance for thrusting and slashing, although their attendants could furnish them with bows as needed. Samurai cavalry are therefore divided into light and heavy cavalry, with the division reflecting a general transition in their use from bow wielding warriors to warriors armed with spears and intended to engage in melee with foot soldiers.


‘Light feet’ were initially effectively disorganised conscripted infantry with little skill or organisation, but by the mid-1500s they had developed into a disciplined and well-trained fighting force. Ashigaru were typically armed with spears (the pike-like, 15 foot long nagaeyari), but were also equipped with teppo and yumi. Yumi ashigaru (common from the 14th century onwards) required considerable effort to train, but could lay down accurate fire with their bows. They were frequently used as skirmishers. Teppo ashigaru (present after the introduction of the arquebus in 1543) were considerably easier to train, and the teppo had a longer effective range than the bow, although its fire rate remained relatively low until the introduction of the cartridge in the late 1500s. Teppo ashigaru came to replace yumi ashigaru over the course of the 16th century, but they were seen operating together in formations of missile troops through to 1550s.

It is important to note that ashigaru formations were not the tight, ordered ranks exemplified by the Swiss ‘press of pike’. Instead, they were looser structures that would adopt a Defensive hedge against cavalry but break up to conduct vigorous pursuit.  This was ideally suited to the rugged, broken terrain typical in Japan.


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