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How Samurai Battles Were Fought

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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Like many of the warrior classes around the world, the Samurai have a certain mystique on them. As a friend summed it up, the life of a samurai is like a cherry blossom; beautiful but short. They dedicated their whole existence adhering to a strict warrior code, training at young age, serving with fierce loyalty, and charging into combat with honor. Legends and myths were built around the samurai lore, and although reality is less than ideal when the myths are separated, the samurai still inspired deep fascination. So much so that their legacy could still be seen on modern Japan, with the ideals and ethics adopted by the corporate world, and even by the common people.

And as we dig even deeper into the Samurai culture, we uncover some interesting facts about them, and one is their preferred method of combat. We know that Samurai conduct their battles differently from other cultures. This became clear in conflicts, like the Mongol invasion attempts of Japan. Two styles collided, with one side favoring massed archeries, while the Samurai forces adhered to their ritualized battles. The way the samurai fought was rooted in tradition, which also included religious rites, and singles combat.

Weapons and Manpower

Modern day practitioner of the samurai mounted archery.

Modern day practitioner of the samurai mounted archery.

Although the samurai class was often associated with their swords, they were as practical as any soldiers in the battlefield. Hence, the sword was not the only weapon they were proficient with, and they were trained to handle a variety of battlefield implements. In fact, the sword was just a sidearm and their standard battle weapons were the Yumi (longbow) and pole weapons (naginata and yari spears). In 1543 through Portuguese trade, the Tanegashima, the Japanese made matchlock firearms came into use by the Samurai and their forces.

The armor the samurai wore was ever evolving to suit the needs of the battlefield. Heian period samurai rode into battle in their o-yoroi and do-maru. The samurai of later period then adopted the lighter and easily made tosei-gusoku, with variants using steel plates to resist bullets. For the infantry forces, simple munition armors were issued, including the collapsible tatami armor.

And now that we speak of forces, the Samurai employed infantry units composed of ashigaru as a backbone of their armies. During the Nara period, the samurai build their armies with Chinese soldiers, and later with farm workers employed to fight in wars by their samurai landowners. These peasant foot soldiers in their munition armors, conical hats and armed with standard battle weapons were the ashigaru.

Order to Fight

Himeji Castle, an example of a samurai castle.

Himeji Castle, an example of a samurai castle.

When a samurai was ordered to head out to battle, certain leaving rituals were made, with some, like word plays were meant to promote victory and destruction to the enemy.

The samurai lives on lands they manages, in fortified castles where they served as overlords. In times of battle, an order for war was sent to the assigned samurai, but warriors first conducted rites before they leave. This included the ceremony of nine cups, where the samurai will drink nine shots of sake wine. Only certain foods were consumed, including the Japanese abalone. When stepping out from their stronghold, the left leg goes out first, as the left leg was associated with the Yang, the male energy required for war. The emphasis on male energy was the reason why women, with their Ying energy weren’t allowed to view the warriors as they leave. Ritualistic chants accompanied the samurai as they leave the gates of their stronghold. They flew their personal banners and emblems, and aides of war accompany the departing warrior.

Pre-Battle Preparation

The ashigaru reenactors.

The ashigaru reenactors.

Pre battle preparations include discussions with the tacticians, and intelligence gathering to gain an upper hand against the enemy.

During the 15th century, shinobi, or ninjas did the spying for the samurai, to give information about the place (map creations) and the enemy. They are sometimes tasked for propaganda or asymmetric warfare if the need arises, sparing the samurai from doing the dirty works that the warrior code never permitted. The samurai forces set out with the scouts and the flag section in the front, the command section in the center and supply train behind them. Before advancing from their own domain, the army made a stop outside a place of worship dedicated to the god of archers Hachiman Daibosatsu for blessings.

Determining the best place for encampment was the work of the scouts, whereas only a place with the best land area, water usage and exit points would be chosen. The scouts also determined the location of the opposing army.

The samurai camp could be likened to a small town with paths and restricted area. Outside the bamboo wall are defenses of ditches and banks. The dwelling places included a marquee-like tents with detachable poles and waterproof roofs. Flags marked the area of encampment as scouts watched for infiltrators.

The Battle

Reenactors, where the samurai leads the ashigaru in a charge.

Reenactors, where the samurai leads the ashigaru in a charge.

And then the armies finally meet, with the ashigaru and archers upfront and the samurai on horseback behind them. There were drumbeats, flying of flags, conch shells blowing and taking of oaths, while the gods were called upon to witness the display of courage from the opposing forces. This was done through the ritualized shooting of bulbous headed arrows. Rivals from the opposing sides would face each other in singles combat called ikki-uchi, calling out worthy opponents and issuing a challenge. This form of strategy, where the risks were high, and the return was low could be declined or be banned by commanders as was in the case of the Mongol Invasion of Japan.

The major combat began after the brief duel between rivals. Samurais on horseback led the charge of the infantry men, seeing it as an honor to enter the battle first.

The use of arquebus in the Sengoku period changed how the samurai conduct their operation in the battlefield. At 100 meters, volley fires went shooting from both sides before the ashigaru spearman advanced. The samurai, either on horseback or foot charged behind them, while observing the battle in a maku tent is the army chief.

Head Collection and Aftermath

A print of a samurai in armor, holding a severed head.

A print of a samurai in armor, holding a severed head.

Head collection as war trophy was a source of pride among the victors. The heads were groomed and arranged on a table, with their teeth blacken as a sign of desecration. The casualties of war, the heroic deeds, the injured and the heads taken were recorded in the command center. The high-ranking samurai celebrate their victory with tea ceremony, as the commander-in-chief performed the inspection of the severed head, with the spiritual protection of tacticians and archers to prevent the spirits of the slain from seeking revenge.

The value of the victim determined the reward of the victor, and in some cases a samurai would take the head of a common soldier and dressed it with a helmet, to passed it for a high-ranking samurai. Practices of murdering common people in nearby villages, to present their heads as a high value target was done by samurai who never made a kill, though noses were sometimes taken instead. And to prevent false claims like this, the whole face was sometimes skinned for identification. Taking noses instead of heads was also done for logistic purpose, as was the case in the Invasion of Korea.

The samurai and the army returned home after the battle, his arrival greeted by the wives and children, as well as the promised rewards of wealth and lands.

References:

1. Cummins, Anthony (18 October 2018) "A brief history of samurai warfare". History Extra.

2. Cook, H. (1993). Samurai – The Story of a Warrior Tradition. London. Blandford Press.

3. "The Japanese Samurai at War". History of Fighting. Retrieved 2021-01-10.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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