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By F.W.Seal
The Ashigaru, Samurai, and their weapons
The Battlefield
The Battle for Kawagoe

he Sengoku Period was perhaps the most dynamic

period in the military history of the samurai. Changing
technology and ideas combined to minimize ageless
tactic and ideals. The samurai himself was ultimately to be
minimized, his great presence reduced by ranks of common
foot soldiers with gun and spear. The cult of personality
remained, and the quest for individuality was barely
dampened even as late as 1600, yet samurai warfare itself
had changed completely. These changes were to a greater or
lesser extent forced upon the men who led these armies into
battle. Never before had Japan experienced a time of war so
long or complete, with as many as 250 individual daimy
struggling to protect their territory and position. Men like
Takeda Shingen, Mri Motonari, and Hj Ujiyasu fought
dozens of battles to expand their territory, while others, like
the Asai and Saito, fought to consolidate their fledgling
domains. Enemies existed on the inside as well as the
outside. The Shimazu, famous for nearly conquering all of
Kyushu, spent the first half of the Sengoku Period divided in
civil war and threatened by rebellious - and recalcitrant -

vassals. The bulk of this article concerns the sengoku daimy,

that is, the warlords of the early to later 16th Century. The
conventions of daimy - and Toyotomi Hideyoshi - are
therefore only treated in passing, or where directly

he demands of this dangerous time forced the daimy

both to seek ways in which to maximize their military
might and to develop an infrastructure that would
support the demands of war. The advent of the land survey
was perhaps as important any tactical development, and the
Sengoku Period would see as many upheavals in the social
fabric of Japan as on the battlefield.
One of the ways in which a daimy created his army was by
establishing a more or less clearly defined system of
obligation for his retainers. This was not a matter - or
problem - unique to the sengoku period. Earlier military
figures had also faced the difficulties inherent in sustaining a
military force largely drawn from other houses and this is well
illustrated by the experiences of Isshiki Noriuji. Assigned as
Ashikaga Takauji's military commander (loosely speaking) on
Kyushu around 1336, Noriuji was essentially tasked with
pressing the Ashikaga cause there. He found it very hard to
make progress, however, due to the difficulties in securing
the military support of the various families on the island. Like
the 16th Century daimy, Noriuji had only a relatively small
personal military force and was so dependant on the
manpower of other local figures. Like the daimy, one of
Noriuji's primary problems was in providing rewards for
services rendered - an almost universal element of samurai
history. This example is oblique at best, but suffice it to say
that even prior to the sengoku period the concept of 'central
authority' (as in the bakufu) carried less weight then force of

personality (as demonstarted by the greater successes on

Kyushu achieved by Imagawa Sadayo) and the promise of
personal gain. Local rivalries and individual ties were also a
salient point of samurai politics.
The idea of military requirement provides one with as
complex a subject as any relating to the 16th Century. This is
all the more due to the fact that most daimy had their own
ideas on how to asess requirement and thus raise armies.
Rather then endeavor to pick the issue part piece by piece, a
few examples will be given. In forming a manpower pool from
which to draw on, the Takeda of Kai declared that certain
segments of the populace were to be considered
gun'yakusho, or military taxpayers. These villages received a
tax break in return for providing men for military service. In
this case, gun'yakusho villages were excused 60 percent of
their income, whereas standard cultivators (so-byakusho)
were excused only 45 percent. The large majority of the tax
body fell under the cultivator bracket (69 out of 108
registrants), although the value of the military taxpayer's
lands tended to be much greater value. A third body, the goonkyu, or stipendiary, were also wealthy (by the standards of
the register this is all drawn from) and were excused one
hundred percent of their taxes. At the same time, these
registrants appear to have been expected to provide
manpower for war at any time, whereas the gun'yakusho
occupied a somewhat secondary position in this regard.
A daimy's retainers were expected to provide men for
war, and this requirement often formed the basis of a
daimyo's military organization. The Takeda, to follow the
example above, required their retainers to provide a set
number of horsemen. We may assume that the Takeda
retainers were also expected to bring with them a certain
number of footmen per horseman, though this is not
mentioned specifically.

It may be important to note here that the retainers of

daimy such as Takeda Shingen were not exactly 'generals' in
the western sense of the word (though they were often called
taisho, which does translate as 'general'). These men were
generally the heads of lesser families, landed warrior-houses
who assumed - or demanded - a sort of autonomy within their
own fiefs. The greatest challenge a daimy might well face
was in securing the loyalties of these clans. If the family in
question had a long tradition of loyalty to the daimy in
question, then the task was perhaps somewhat easier,
though more would be expected of these hereditary
retainers. Newer additions could prove more problematicand occasionally fatal. To deal with the demands of ruling an
essentially self-contained kingdom and the intricacies of a
growing retainer band, many daimy houses established a
set of house laws with which they sought to define their legal
legitimacy. The emphasis was very much on the concept of
law, as law to a greater or lesser extent could transcend
house and daimy. The goal, one might say, was to create
the notion of the domain, or kokka, in the fullest sense of the
word. The Hj in particular sought to sidestep the evervexing quest for legitimacy by placing the onus on the needs
of the domain. In an order dating from 1582, the Hj daimy
declared, "In times of war such as the present, all the people
of the domain must participate in the war effort. Anyone who
fails to follow orders [to report for duty] will be summarily
punished. Such [punishment] is not an injustice [commited
by] the lord (taito)". As historian Sasaki Junnosuke
commented, the inclusion of the final sentence was, in a
sense, of a denial of the daimy's authority - the draft was
necessary for the good of the realm, and therefore was not a
prerogative of the daimy. In this way, the daimy took on
the role of guardian, vested with powers intended to serve
the collective good of his domain. Needless to say, there was
no universal system of recruitment or organization among

the various daimy - methods were adopted and

implemented based on local factors, resources, and the
strategies of individual daimy. To present a case in point,
the following is an order issued by the Shimazu daimy in
1578 calling men up for service to fight the tomo

Shimazu mobilization order 1578

Holders of 1 cho: 2 men, master and follower; the master's
service shall be personal;
holders of 2 cho: 3 men, master and followers;
holders of 3 cho: 4 men, master and followers;
holders of 4 cho: 5 men, master and followers;
holders of 5 cho: 6 men, master and followers;
holders of 6 cho: 7 men, master and followers;
holders of 7 cho: 8 men, master and followers;
holders of 8 cho: 9 men, master and followers;
holders of 9 cho: 10 men, master and followers;
holders of 10 cho: 11 men, master and followers;
"The foregoing is the assessment [based upon that] for one
cho of ta (Meaning more than one cho and less than two).
The military service from 10 cho up to 100 cho and 1,000
cho, [shall be performed on the same basis]. It should be
understood that armor (gusoku) is assessed at the rate of
one set for one cho."
Note: One cho was equal to about 2.94 acres of land; this
was reduced to 2.45 acres in 1594.
One may assume that the circumstances under which a
daimy called his warriors to arms dictated the extent of any
given draft. The Hj drafts became well known for their all-

inclusive nature. An order dated around 1560, a time when

Uesugi Kenshin was driving into the Hj's northern holdings,
says, "All men from 15 to 70 years of age are ordered to
come; not even a monkey tamer will be let off Men to be
permitted to remain in the village are those whose ages are
above 70 years, or under 15 years, and too young to be used
as messengers, but the others are all ordered to come." At
the same time, the order also promised rewards for those
who came and served diligently. In this we see that not even
the Hj could expect peasants to take up weapons and fight
without some form of compensation - or material inducement
- above and beyond the fear of being beheaded. Further, this
order was directed at a single district - not the Hj domain
as whole, so sweeping conclusions should not be drawn from
this famous example. Other daimy are known to have issued
blanketing draft orders in times of crisis, including Takeda
Katsuyori, who made a call similar to the above in response
to the Tokugawa attack on a certain Taketenjin Castle in
1579. It might be noted that Katsuyori had lost a significant
number of men in battle at Nagashino in 1575 (no less then
10,000), and that his army had never recovered - forcing him
to take what was no doubt an unpopular step in Kai. Not all
men drafted were made ashigaru, however. Peasants were
often pressed into service as porters, servents, and laborers.
These men were rarely armed beyond the issue of a short
sword and a jingasa (the conical helmet of the lower-class
soldiery) and could be assigned any number of functions,
from carrying ammunition to digging ditches. As the war tales
show, even from these lowest of positions heroes could
sometimes emerge that earned samurai status. But, for the
most part, we may safely assume that these men, sometimes
known as chugen (a term also applied to the ashigaru at
times), had little opportunity for glory in the army. For them,
hard work and possibly rough treatment as well was thier lot.
Finally, it might be mentioned that the daimy benefited from
the nature of the Japanese agricultural system when it came

to raising men for war. Rice is a rather low maintenance crop

to grow, and so long as men were available for the planting
and harvesting, the old men and women who stayed behind
could be expected to tend to the fields in the absence of
those called up for service.

efore a daimy could set out for war, he needed to

make a number of preparations, including those of a
logistical and administrative nature. Not every man
could go, and so it was up to the daimy to decide who would
stay behind and tend the fort in his absence. Also, trusted
men would be needed on other fronts to prevent rivals from
taking advantage of the daimy's preoccupation. When
Takeda Katsuyori marched out to Nagashino in 1575, for
example, he entrusted Kosaka Masanobu with a large part of
the Takeda army with the intent that he keep their northern
rival, Uesugi Kenshin, in check. Logistics played a major role
in sengoku period campaigning. Not only did the men and
horses need to be fed while in the field, but also the foot
soldiers were often paid in rice for their service. This
requirement often imposed a sort of curfew on the duration of
a given campaign. Uesugi Kenshin, for example, was forced
to give up his attempt to bring down the Hj stronghold of
Odawara in 1561 for lack of supplies, and the later Hj
decision to retreat within Odawara's walls before Hideyoshi's
might was largely justified on the grounds that the latter
would eventually run out of supplies as well. At the same
time, Kenshin had been fighting far from home in 1561 campaigns conducted closer to home could allow for
replenishment of stores and consequently longer stays in the
field. Kenshin is said to have faced off with Takeda Shingen
for well over a month in 1555, sitting as he was close to the
borders of Echigo, his home province. Logistical needs in the

field were meet with the konidatai, or supply train. Wheeled

transport was often unsuited to the sort of terrain
movements were conducted over (only a rather small
percentage of Japan's topography is flat), so typically the
train was composed of human and animal porters under the
command of a supply master. Not a particularly auspicious
spot in a samurai army, circumstances could nonetheless
require the daimy to assign a trusted general to guard the
supplies, which if lost made retreat almost unavoidable. In
theory, the vanguard of a large army might be expected to
live off the land, relying on the villages in their path to
supplement the konidatai. In reality, the peasantry was often
one step ahead of invading armies - precious foodstuffs (so
vital to a village's well-being) could be secreted, and the
peasants themselves might easily go into hiding in the hills or
a nearby temple. Nonetheless, it may be telling that in
Tokugawa Ieyasu's Field Orders of 1590, which see to the
maintenance of order within the Tokugawa contingent on its
way to the Siege of Odawara, there is no specific injunction
against seizing food from the peasantry.
NHK reproduction of an army encampment, with food being
The command system within the ranks of a daimy's army
could be somewhat straightforward, with familial relations
and senior men providing a second tier of leadership. In
particular, family members could provide a trustworthy cadre
of sub-commanders, as might be seen in the campaigns of a
number of daimy. At the Siege of Gassan-Toda in 1565, Mri
Motonari entrusted sections of his army to his sons
Kobayakawa Takakage and Kikkawa Motoharu, as well as his
grandson Terumoto. At Nagashino, Katsuyori entrusted the
three main elements of his army to Anayama Nobukimi (his
brother-in-law), Takeda Nobutoyo (a cousin), and Takeda
Nobukado (his uncle). Finally, at the Siege of Minamata in

1581, the Shimazu were divided into camps under the control
of Yoshihisa (the daimy) and his brothers, Iehisa, and
Yoshihiro. Other daimy relied more heavily on senior
retainers - or men of ability - and of these, Oda Nobunaga is
noteworthy. Not only did he entrust entire campaigns to
subordinates, but he rarely made extensive use of his family,
though he did entrust his sons Nobutada and Nobuo with
separate commands.
These ranking men tended to provide the basis for the
organization of the daimy's army. Subordinate generals
maintained their own contingent but could be moved about
within the order of battle (that is, from the personal
command of a ranking general to another) as needed. Units
in the modern sense of the word did not exist at the time,
though the personal retainers of a given general might make
a name for themselves, as illustrated by those of Tokugawa
general Ii Naomasa, whose retainers gained the nickname
'Red Devils'. Again, we see generals acting as 'units; with
certain generals being recorded as 'Infantry generals'
(ashigaru taisho) and 'gunnery generals/captains' (teppo
taisho/monogashira). At the Battle of Nagashino mentioned
above, Nobunaga placed a number of his generals in
command of entire units of arquebus, though we may safely
assume that most generals led elements of a militarily
eclectic nature.
At this point, we may turn back to the Shimazu to provide us
with an example of preparations for war. While essentially a
recruitment document (like the 1578 example given above),
it does elaborate on the implements those responding to the
call were expected to bring. This order was issued prior to a
Shimazu campaign against the Ito clan of Hyga, and in
which a siege was probably expected

Shimazu recruitment order 1576

'Assignment [of service] for the expedition:
Those [holding] one cho of ta: one man per cho, [meaning]
two men, master and follower; providing their own rice for
food. Besides, one attendant laborer (tsumefu)
shall be
provided by the churches and temples; 3 draught horses
shall be assessed upon churches and temples.
Next, the implements to be carried:
1 tekabushi (?), height 3 1/2 shaku, width 2 1/2 shaku
1 log, 6 shaku long;
1 hoe
1 broad-axe 1 sickle
1 saw 1 chisel
1 adze
1 dirt-carrier
1 coil of rope.
Those [holding more than] 2 cho: one man per cho,
[meaning] three men, master and followers; providing their
own rice for food. 2 draught horses shall be assessed upon
churches and temples, as well as widows.
The aforesaid implements for work (fu-shin) shall be carried
into the camps at the rate stated above for each cho of ta.
Up to 100 cho and 1,000 cho, the assessments shall be [the
proportionate multiples of that for] one cho of ta. Those who
have no land (muashi-shu) shall provide between two of
them one attendant laborer (tsumefu) being assessed
[also?] upon churches and temples, and widows; rice for food
to be their own
provision. 3 draught horses shall be
provided likewise by churches and temples.
For thirty days during the expedition the rice for food shall
be self-support; beyond thirty days, it will be provided by

the authorities (kogi). Those [holding ta] between five and

nine tan shall provide their own rice for food; those between
one and four tan shall receive rice for food from the
Tensho 4 y. 8 m. 1 d. [24 August 1576]'.
The 1560 Hj draft order mentioned above also sheds some
light on the accoutrements of war the men were expected to
bring with them, as well as the possible catch-as-catch-can
nature of the early- to mid-sengoku period army "Men must
arrive at the appointed place properly armed with anything
they happen to posses, and those who do not posses a bow,
a spear, or any sort of regular weapon are to bring even hoes
or sickles." Armor seems to have been doled out by the
daimy or their retainers to the foot soldiers depending on
the supply available. Men equipped only with simple helmets
(jingasa) do not seem to have been that uncommon in the
earlier years, and only a few noted daimy would ever even
attempt to equip their armies uniformly (Date Masamune
being the most well known example). At the same time, the
one area that the daimy seem to have made sure not to
skimp on was heraldry (the Hj order also encouraged the
peasantry to fashion small paper flags for use on campaign).
Discerning who was who on the battlefield was of singular
importance, especially given that all indications are that
many a battle would ultimately develop into a general melee
(as opposed to the image of the artfully orchestrated
movement of Romanesque bodies of tightly packed spearmen
fostered in the Edo Period).
Finally, we will look at another Shimazu document from
1591, this one in relation to the pending Invasion of Korea.
While the cirumstances that surrounded this mobilization
were extraodrinary, one may assume with some confidence

that the Shimazu were drawing on existing conventions and

experiences when this was drafted.

Shimazu preparations for the Korean Invasion, 1591

At the rate of one mounted knight for each 1,020 koku; 95
knights in all.
Total, 3,230 men of this class, being 34 men with each
[knight] (zhin-tai).
At the rate of one mounted knight for each 510 koku; 24
knights in all.
Total, 408 men of this class, being 17 men with each [knight].
At the rate of one mounted knight for each 300 koku; 143
knights in all.
Total, 1,430 men, being 10 men with each [knight].
300 squires on foot. 900 laborers (fu-maru), being three
laborers with each [squire].
500 landless(mu-ashi) men. 1,000 laborers, being 2 laborers
with each [landless man].
665 carriers of weapons(do-gu).
2,000 laborers from the lord's domains(kura-iri).
2,000 boatmen.
Grand total, 12,433 men.
Provision for these men for five months, 10,522.9 koku,
inclusive of supplies for boatmen and their chiefs.
272 horses. Their provisions 616 koku of beans, being for five
months, at the rate of 2 sho per day [for each horse].
Rice and beans together 11,438.9 koku.
[Shimazu Yukihisa's] 9 mounted knights, with 332 men.
[Ijuin Tadamune's] 69 mounted knights, with 2,332 men.

Total, 350 mounted knights;

Grand total, 15,097 men.
Note: The terms 'knight' and 'squire' are Asakawa's
The Ashigaru, Samurai, and their weapons

or most daimy, the majority of their army would be

comprised of ashigaru, or 'light feet'. These men were
typically peasants, drawn from the fields to serve for a
limited amount on time on military campaign. Like most of
the lower classes of the day, they bore no family name
(though they might receive one, and consequently samurai
status, for exceptional service) and were rarely equipped with
any degree of uniformity in the earlier stages of the sengoku
period. The Onin War saw the first large-scale raising of
ashigaru, and that experience had certainly been less then
promising. Poorly trained and motivated mostly by a desire
for loot, the Onin ashigaru were often more of a liability to
their lord then an asset. Yet the intense competition of the
sengoku period forced the daimy to rely ever more heavily
on the ashigaru, and innovative daimy found ways to
maximize their usefulness. The most obvious developments
were in military weaponry.
Uesugi and Takeda spearmen clash at Kawanakajima, 1561
By at least 1550 ashigaru were being trained to fight as longspearmen, with spears that could range from ten to almost
20 feet long. The idea was to create a body of men who
would wield their weapons as a single unit, with mitigating
what might have been poor training or even shaky morale.
Traditionally the wielding of a spear on the battlefield had
been conducted on an individual basis, with a consequently

high level of training required to use that weapon effectively.

The time required in teaching a man how to thrust a long
spear and stay in a basic formation was quite a bit less.
Perhaps more importantly, the NUMBER of spearmen that
could be sent into battle was very high. Unfortunately, we
have no real way of knowing just how well these long
spearmen really functioned on the battlefield - most of the
contemporary chronicles, often written for a samurai
audience, spend precious little time discussing the ashigaru
or the specifics of their use. The Zhy Monogatari gives
some tips on the use of ashigaru in battle, but is probably not
of great use in a discussion of the Sengoku Period, written as
it was in the mid-17th Century and at a time when all men
who bore arms were samurai (of varying rank) and war
strategy had become an intellectual pursuit. In addition, the
wonderfully detailed battle scrolls depicting the conflicts of
the age (such as the 'Nagashino Scroll', pieces of which
appear below) rarely depict the large numbers of ashigaru
that we know were present at the battles. Those that are
shown appear more like dismounted samurai then ashigaru.
The introduction of the arquebus also substantially
increased the military value of the ashigaru. In this case, an
adequate shot with a gun could be produced much faster
then an archer with comparable ability. The bow, in the hands
of a skilled archer, was still a potent weapon but by 1575 the
gun had completely overshadowed its ancient cousin in many
daimy armies. The manner in which this new tool of war was
employed depended on a number of factors, especially the
tactics of the individual daimy themselves. Daimy like Oda
Tokugawa general Ii Naomasa's matchlockmen at Nagakute,
Nobunaga, Shimazu Takahisa, and Takeda Shingen were quick

to sieze on the arquebus, with Nobunaga in particular

capitalizing on its hitting power. Yet perhaps more
importantly, the arquebus was employed based on its
availability. Oda Nobunaga, for example, could afford to
create a large gunnery element for his army and (it could be
argued) his use of some form of volley fire might have been a
natural extension of this luxury. This is not to say that
Nobunaga was not innovative, just that his rivals may not
necessarily have been as backward in comparison. They
simply did not have the guns needed to do what Nobunaga
did. It might therefore be telling that Nobunaga's great
enemies, the warriors of the Honganji, also appear to have
used massed volley fire - on Nobunaga himself! Like Oda,
they held a large number of firearms, having access to the
gun factory maintained by the Negoro monastic complex. In
other words, availability breeds innovation. The arquebus was
fairly common throughout the length of Japan by 1580, but
often in short supply in the more remote regions. The great
warlord Uesugi Kenshin, for example, is recorded as having a
grand total of 360 guns in the forces assessed in the 1575
Uesugi registry (or about 1 gunner in every 19 men covered
under the registry); by way of comparison, Nobunaga, with
access to the port of Sakai and the gun factory at Kunimoto,
deployed 3,000 guns among his 30,000 men at Nagashino
that same year - a 1/3 ratio! As a side note, the Uesugi
Registry also indicates that the bow, even where the gun was
scarce, was by now relegated to a minor role - there is not
separate listing for archers in the rolls: they are lumped over
what amounts to 'other'. At the same time, one must not be
too hasty in assuming that the archer had been eclipsed
entirely. A document in the Iriki-in collection regarding the
Shimazu preparations for the 1592 Invasion of Korea (the
document is dated 1591) states that a total of 1,500 archers
are to be deployed, which equalled the number of
matchlockmen slated to go.

Oda matchlockmen at Nagashino, 1575

The Hj daimy of the Kanto were also lacking in the
arquebus department for much of their tenure as masters of
the Kanto, though they were noted for keeping the spirit of
the archer alive and well - even if this was seen as a tad
quaint by observers. They did make a spirited effort to amass
firearms in their twilight years: at the Siege of Odawara in
1590 it was said they stationed three guns to every firing
hole on the walls. Those daimy who did not posses an
abundance of firearms tended to deploy them as skirmishers
along with the archers, up front and ready to pick off any
inviting targets. When the enemy drew too near for comfort,
they retreated 'behind the lines'. The Oda, on the other hand,
made the fullest possible use of their guns, both on offense
and defense. At Nagashino, Nobunaga deployed his gunners
behind a series of palisades made from bamboo poles,
structures intended not to stop an enemy charge but to slow
it down long enough for the vulnerable gunners to retreat. By
1600, this seems to have become commonplace on the
battlefield, as there are references to the practice being used
at the Battle of Sekigahara. The gun changed the face of
samurai warfare and while it might not have breed a
diminution of the offensive spirit (as some authors seem to
claim, pointing to the stand-off at Komaki in 1584 as an
example), it necessarily reduced the extent to which
individualism could play a part in a given battle. Quite a few
samurai generals would fall before the gunner's aim and at
least one clan, the Shimazu, seems to have trained snipers
with the express mission of shooting enemy commanders. By
1600, we find that a certain Ono Tadaaki was punished for
engaging in individual combat at the Siege of Ueda, though
whether he was punished for his individualism or because he
did so without permission is unclear. Certainly, the individual
samurai still had a place on the battlefield but the focus had

shifted to greater things. As Takeda Shingen is alleged to

have observed in 1569 after his son Katsuyori fought a duel
with a Hj samurai, "Well, that's good, but it is a trifling
matter in view of the great undertaking required. This castle
will not fall through one single action. [Nobushige], Shiro, and
the others who took chances were either killed in action or
had a hard time of it."
Cavalry still had an important place on the battlefield and
yet even this veteran symbol of the samurai had been
relegated to a supporting role by the time of Sekigahara. Like
guns, horses tended to be difficult to acquire in large
numbers, and unlike guns required both a high degree of skill
to use in a military capacity and were even logistical burdens.
Of course, no samurai army was without horses, but their
general availability and the wealth of the individual daimy
(or the retainers supplying them) tended to determine the
numbers. This is not to say that horses themselves were rare
in Japan at the time; rather, horses fit for war could be
expensive. The Takeda, famous for their use of cavalry, were
lucky enough to have access to the most reknowned horsebreeding region in Japan at the time: the Kiso area of Shinano
Province. By comparison, Chosokabe Motochika's army, on
economically backward Shikoku Island, was described as
having to make use of animals that did not seem fit for work
in the fields.
Mounted general and attendants at Nagashino, 1575
Of note to the student of European military history is the
altogether different road that the development of cavalry
tactics took in Japan. Where the heavy cavalry of figures such
as Richard the Lionhearted, for example, had been a battlewinning shock force in the Crusades (see especially his
victory at Arsuf in 1191), the samurai tended to focus on the

advantages of mobility and position afforded by the horse.

The cavalry charge was not an entirely alien concept to the
Japanese, but its complexion was much different from the
western picture. European cavalry had often been seen as a
battering ram, deployed at the right moment to shatter
enemy formations, with rider and horse armored both to
provide protection from enemy weapons as well as the sheer
force of the impact with the enemy lines. The sight of
mounted knights thundering down on enemy footmen and
the terror it could generate were sometimes decisive in and
of themselves. Both the Japanese topography and horses
available tended to preclude the development of this sort of
warfare amongst the samurai. In fact, the early mounted
samurai were rather more akin to the horse archers that
Richard's great opponent Saladin employed. By the sengoku
period, the samurai had traded his bow for a short spear and
his armor had become tailored for fighting on foot as well as
in the saddle. The Japanese horseman was often
accompanied by a number of men on foot whose task it was
to protect him and his vulnerable horse in the thick of the
fight. The horses the samurai used in battle were almost
never armored (perhaps due to their typically small size and
consequently lower load-bearing capacity), and might easily
be felled or wounded with a single spear thrust. In addition,
and perhaps often over-looked, is the hunger with which
notable heads were sought, and the fact that anyone
mounted was a lucrative target in this sense. Taking the head
of a samurai could bring rewards for an ashigaru, and taking
the head of a general was undoubtedly the dream of many a
samurai, to say nothing of the ashigaru. Generals who found
themselves alone in the midst of the enemy were likely to be
swamped with eager enemy warriors and quickly deprived of
his head should escape be impossible.
The Japanese cavalry, then, was an amalgamation of
mounted and un-mounted troops, with the former careful not

to outpace the latter should close combat be likely. At the

same time, the cavalry could be employed to scatter enemy
ashigaru whose morale or position was wanting, and the
cavalry did its bloodiest work, as cavalry everywhere always
did, when it was running down fleeing troops. The mounted
samurai could also be used as a mobile reserve, ready to
exploit weaknesses or counter enemy moves. Finally, the
horseman served a valuable role as scouts and messengers,
both of which were considered altogether honorable posts.
The scout (o-mono miso) may have also been equipped with
a bow (for use in silencing enemy scouts or for keeping them
at a distance) from time to time, making them a reminder of
an earlier era.
The last and most unlikely weapon to see service in the
sengoku period was the cannon, whose use ranged from the
novel to the determined. Acquired from the West, these
weapons tended to be largely useless from a tactical point of
view, though they could have a powerful psychological effect.
The best case in point is the Osaka Winter Campaign, where
Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered as many as 100 cannon to fire on
the main keep of the castle in the hopes of compelling those
inside to come to terms - which they did. A cannon barrage
was used once again on the keep in the Osaka Summer
Campaign following the Battle of Tennji. These were not the
first times cannon had seen action in battle in Japan, and
there is evidence that by 1578 the Mri and Oda were both
using them in uncertain numbers, with at least a few
examples being found in the tomo arsenal. The Japanese
found producing cannon difficult, which contrasts with their
skill at matchlock production. The sheer logistical burden of
moving these weapons all but relegated them to siege work,
and the field mountings we see in this capacity could be
rather crude. The records seem to indicate that cannon were
mounted on ships later in the 16th Century, perhaps as
swivel guns - and this is borne out by European descriptions

of the Battle of Okinawadate in 1584, where the Arima are

said to have used ship-borne cannon to blast columns of
Ryzji. However, given the total Korean domination of the
naval aspect of the 'Imjim War' (the Koreans mounting
cannon on their own 'turtle boats'), we might assume that
this was not widespread.
As an aside, there seems to be some possibility that Ishida
Mitsunari had at least a few examples at Sekigahara in 1600,
though, had they been there, they did not affect the outcome
of the battle - a total defeat for Mitsunari.
As mentioned above, samurai armor evolved along with
the weapons and tactics of the times, having been gradually
transformed from the boxy and distinctive O-yoroi of the
Heian Period to the more utilitarian, form-fitting Okegawa-d
seen in the sengoku period. Numerous identifiable types of
the ubiquitous okegawa-do were to appear after 1500, but
most were largely variations on a central theme. Firstly, the
'new breed' of samurai armor was made for close fighting that is, they did not particularly restrict movement (insofar as
spear fighting was concerned) and could be speedily donned.
The term Okegawa-d itself meant 'tub-sided armor', in
reference to its design. Whereas older Japanese armor had
been supported by the shoulders of the wearer (an
acceptable convention when the samurai fought on
horseback for the most part), the Okegawa-d's weight was
borne by the hips. Secondly, the Okegawa-d was cheaper to
produce then the older types. The samurai armor of the
Heian Period had been almost works of art in and of
themselves, requiring quite a bit of time to construct. The
Okegawa-d, which was composed of riveted metal lames,
could be mass-produced and without losing any of its design
advantages. The largely smooth face of the armor also
resisted spear thrusts that contacted at an angle (whereas
older types had a tendency to catch spear heads) and

afforded some measure of protection from gunfire. Finally,

the Okegawa-d lent itself to quite a bit of customization,
especially in decoration, which meant that even a general
could wear a suit without appearing 'common'.
The Mogami-d type of armor, which was composed of
metal lames held together with lacing and popular in the
middle part of the sengoku, suffered from a few
disadvantages compared to the Okegawa-d. Firstly, it was
more expensive to produce. Secondly, the lacing was
vulnerable to the elements, meaning that the armor itself
required more maintenance. Nonetheless, the Mogami-d
was reasonably common, and even older designs were still to
be seen on the battlefield. For the sake of tradtion, perhaps,
it was not uncommon for great generals to be shown wearing
O-yoroi, and a few sets may even have made appearances
from time to time - though doubtlessly in a ceremonial
A suit of nuinobe-d, a style of armor popular on the eve of
the Sengoku Period.
Another type of armor that came into relatively common
use in the 16th Century was the tatami-d, or folding cuirass.
Perhaps the cheapest design, it was built by sewing small
metal plates to a mail or even quilt lining. Its primary
advantage - aside from its cost - was the ease with which it
could be folded up and stored when not in use - as its name
We can assume that the daimyo made every effort to outfit
their troops for war with some form of armor, but in all
probability there was not always enough to go around. As
noted in an earlier section, the porters and servants were not
typically issued suits of armor beyond a simply jingasa. The
actual samurai within a given army presumably had their own

armor; those ashigaru who didn't happen to have a suit

needed to rely on their daimyo or his retainers. Should the
supply run short, he probably had to make do as best he
could without. The 1591 Shimazu document pertaining to the
coming war in Korea noted above contains the interesting
line: 'The mounted men might well bear helmet and armor'.
We may close this section with extracts from a further
Shimazu document concerning the war in Korea (dated
January 1597) as it sheds some light on the composition of a
late-sengoku army. While the situation in question was
unique, similar documents show that the particulars of the
preparation for war in Korea were no extraordinary.
The Battlefield

he Sengoku Period was a time that saw many battles,

ranging from countless minor skirmishes to the
eventual, and vast, battles of Sekigahara (1600) and
Tennji (1615). The battles became bigger - and more
strategically significant - as certain daimyo powerhouses
emerged to contend for regional and ultimately national
control. At the same time, many of these battles were rather
straightforward affairs, with a general melee ensuing after a
exchange of fire from ranged weapons. Head-on assaults
were the norm throughout the period, even after the
slaugh1ter at Nagashino, and, as mentioned above,
individualism gave way to massed infantry and firearms.
Determining actual battlefield strengths - and thus trends
within the progression of sengoku warfare - is a difficult task.
No strangers to psychological warfare, daimyo often gave out
inflated estimations of their own manpower to intimidate
foes. The allied Uesugi/Ashikaga army that surrounded
Kawagoe in November 1545, for example, put out that they
had no less then 80,000 horsemen on the field, doubtlessly to
persuade their enemy, the Hj, that resistance as pointless.

Added to this is a tendency of later authors to take such

figures at face value. A recent work even inflated the Uesugi
by an additional 20,000, placing the Uesugi juggernaught at a
whopping 100,000 men! Needless to say, this is just a bit on
the fanciful side, but is not confined to Kawagoe. The ratio of
forces at one of the most famous battles in samurai history Okehazama - is also a bit hazy. At the time, Imagawa
Yoshimoto made it known that he was marching on the Oda
clan with an army of some 40,000 men, while he probably
had somewhere around 20,000. In fact, estimations on the
Imagawa's strength run from a 'paltry' 10,000 to 30,000, with
Oda Nobunaga, his foe, having between 1,500 and 3,000
men on hand.
Regardless of conflicting figures, the samurai were leading
bigger and more complex armies then ever before, and to
facilitate such activities, new systems of command and
control had to be developed. One of the most basic
expedients was the adoption of the 'sashimono', a small flag
worn by individuals and bearing some readily identifiable
symbol or color scheme. This allowed samurai and ashigaru
to tell friend from foe in the often confused fighting. Ota
Gyichi commented in his description of the Battle of
Okehazama, "In all this, enemy and friendly warriors never
confused themselves with each other, distinguishing
themselves by color."
Generals and daimyo carried larger banners known as
nobori and uma-jirushi with them to indicate their presence
on the battlefield and to act as rallying points for their men.
As an aside, these banners could in fact be three-dimentional
objects such as plumes, fans, or even more elaborate
constructions. The downside of the 'general/daimy' banners
was that it also informed the enemy of where the leaders
were, and this had disastrous consequences on more then
one occasion. To offset this danger, most daimyo had a

bodyguard unit of picked men with them on the battlefield

whose sole task to was to protect the life and limb of their
A larger view of the Battle of Nagakute shown above; note
the use of sashimono, nobori, and uma-jirushi.
To control the basic movements of their armies, samurai
leaders made use of various noise-making devices, such as
drums (including the great taiko) and conch shells (horogai).
For more specific commands, the daimyo had on hand a
messenger corps (tsukaiban). In fact, there seems to have
been two types of messenger: the armored and mounted
samurai expected to brave enemy action to deliver their
messages, and unarmored ashigaru or laborers presumably
used to deliver notes 'behind the lines'. The job of the
tsuakiban was doubtlessly a dangerous one. They often bore
distinctive sashimono and their movements made their
function obvious - and an inviting target, as there were no
'gentlemen's rules' concerning them as occasionally
protected messangers in earlier European warfare.
The extent to which formations as we might use the word
were employed is difficult to discern. Very elaborate and
poetically named (i.e., 'Crane's Wing', 'Fish Scales', ect)
army formations were detailed in the Edo Period (and appear
in at least a few sengoku period texts), but the form they
actually took on the sengoku battlefield was likely a bit more
crude. Certainly, contemporary depictions of warfare in the
16th Century seem to support that assumption - most, such
as the Shizugatake and Nagakute screens, do not give any
impression of the stylized 'science' of sengoku samurai
warfare seemingly created in the Edo Period and recreated in
modern movies.
As mentioned in a preceding section, the sengoku army

was often composed of various clans united under the

standard of the daimyo, and to a greater or lesser extent
were independent commands subject to general orders from
the top. In short, the samurai army was very 'feudal'. This is
evident in instances where individual generals took it into
their own hands to start a battle, such as at Sekigahara,
where Ii Naomasa decided to charge first, beating Fukushima
Masanori (the man slated to begin the fighting) to the punch.
Despite the decline in individual combat (that is, dueling and
the like), the samurai ego had been in no way diminished.
With this in mind, the Koyo Gunkan's description of the
Takeda preparations prior to the 4th Battle of Kawanakajima
seems to present an accurate depiction of an army's
deployment (despite the otherwise shaky historical reliability
of that work)
It was also decided that twelve commanders - the aides-decamp group led by Obu Saburo who was to be in the
middle, [Takeda Nobushige] and Anayama [Nobukimi] to the
left, and [Naito Masatoyo] and [Morozumi Masakiyo] to the
right, with Hara and [Takeda Nobukado] to the left, and
[Takeda] Yoshinobu and Mochizuki to the right, flanking
them, and [Atobe], Imafuku Zenkuro, and [Asari] bringing up
the rear - all told 8,000 men
As stated elsewhere, family members or particularly loyal
men often occupied key points in a given battle formation.
Provisions might also be made to compensate for poor-quality
troops or troops likely to be fighting at a disadvantage (as
with the Oda gunners arrayed against the Takeda at
Nagashino). The daimyo himself often sat somewhere to the
rear where he might effectively control the battle, to
whatever extent he could once fighting began. The daimyo's
position is often portrayed as the 'command center' of the
army, with messengers rushing to and fro relaying specific
instructions. In fact, his most important function once the

fighting had begun was as a rallying force for his men, and to
decide when either his men or the enemy had had enough.
His death could - and almost always did - have a disastrous
effect on his army. News that the daimyo had been killed
acted as an 'all bets are off' signal to his commanders; at
Okinawadate, Ryzji Takanobu's death triggered the general
flight of his army - the same occurred at Okehazama when
Imagawa Yoshimoto fell. On the same token, the presence of
the daimyo's banners could be a powerful morale boost. At
the Osaka Castle Summer Campaign, Toyotomi Hideyori's
commanders begged him to join the fray, counting on the
powerful sight of the Toyotomi standard to encourage their
men. Shimazu Yoshihisa is said to have rallied his faltering
army at Mimigawa in 1578 by not moving his standard one
step backward in the face of serious danger. The daimyo
might also opt to place himself in the thick of the fighting,
though this was extremely dangerous and negated any
opportunity he might have had to direct the battle in general.
This was usually reserved for desperate attacks, and could be
the deciding factor in the success of the attempt. For a
description of a daimyo in action, we turn to the Battle of
Okehazama as recorded by Ota Gyuchi, who may have
actually been present at the struggle under Nobunaga
It was about two in the afternoon when [Nobunaga] directed
his attack east. At first about 300 riders made a complete
circle around [Imagawa] Yoshimoto as they retreated, but as
they fought the assaulting forces two, three times, four, five
times, their number gradually decreased. , and in the end
only about fifty riders were left. Nobunaga himself
dismounted and rushed forward with young warriors, felling
enemies forward and backward, as young men in their fury
attacked chaotically, blade clashing against blade,
swordguard slipping swordguard, sparks flying, fire spewing
many of Nobunaga's horse-tenders and pages were killed.

With the introduction of the face mask (mempo) into general

use, daimy had the option of sending a double of
themselves into battle in their place, the illusion bolstered by
the flying of the daimy's personal standard. This tactic,
made famous by the Kurosawa movie Kagemusha, was most
certainly used but does not appear often in the war tales perhaps because it had a tendency to work! The use of
kagemusha points towards the considerable effect the
presence of a daimy could have on the soldiery, both
friendly and enemy. This was all the more so for daimy with
famous names, such as Takeda Shingen, Tokugawa Ieyasu,
and Date Masamune. The kagemusha could also act as a
stand-in for a daimy who had died, so as to prevent enemy
clans from realizing what had occured. The Koyo Gunkan, for
example, records that Takeda Nobukado acted as a double for
his brother Shingen when the latter died (most probably from
illness) in 1573. This expediant would allow the late daimy's
house to reorganize itself and secure the loyalties of the
retainers to the new lord with less fear of enemy attack. For
this reason most daimy deaths were kept secret for as long
as possible.
Returning to battle itself, we find that samurai warfare could
be a very brutal and hardly glorious affair, as the Koyo
Gunkan vividly expresses in reference to the 4th Battle of
friends and foes combined, were thrown into a melee,
stabbing and getting stabbed, slashing and getting slashed,
some grabbing each other's armored shoulders, grappling
and falling down; one would take his enemy's head and rise
to his feet, when someone, shouting, "That's my master's
head," would skewer him with a spear, and a third, seeing
that, would cut that man down. The Kai forces were so taken
up with what was happening right in front of them they didn't
even know where Lord Shingen was. The same was true of
the Echigo forces.

Battles usually ended when one side or the other had had
enough and withdrew, often without decisive strategic effect.
Even at Kawanakajima, the two sides ended up returning to
their respective domains having accomplished little beyond
losing a large number of men. Relatively few battles were 'to
the death' and many were in fact a series of skirmishes.
Some confrontations were pure shows of strength and might
simply result in a truce being struck with the opposing forces
going home without fighting at all. This was especially the
case in the earlier stages of the sengoku period when the
various daimyo often fought to consolidate their own
territories or for local gain. Forts played an important role in
this regard, and certain posts could be taken and lost many
times over. In Bizen Province alone, the locations of over 200
sengoku hilltop forts have been identified. Of course, many of
these were the most basic of structures and acted as
overlooks and screens for more important fortifications, all of
which acted as a web of sorts that guarded a daimyo's
domain and home castle. Some of the smaller ones may not
have even been occupied at all times, as Hj records seem
to indicate. Nonetheless, the acquisition of forts was often
the primary goal of military operations and acted as a
measuring stick of success. The Mri's long war against the
Amako of Izumo, for example, was essentially a string of fort
captures that culminated in the final siege of Gassan-Toda,
which fell in January 1566. This tended to make for very long
'wars'. The Shimazu and Ito were actively at odds for
decades, while the Hj and Satomi fought off and on for
nearly sixty years. Most of the Takeda-Uesugi confrontations
occurred over control of Shinano's northern reaches, and
neither side ever set foot in either Kai or Echigo (the
contender's home provinces). Even after the crushing Takeda
defeat at Nagashino in 1575, they and the Tokugawa/Oda
clans continued to fight until 1582. Needless to say, the term
'war' is misleading when applied to the sengoku period.

Terms of hostility might be a better description. The Takeda,

Hj, and Imagawa were all allies and enemies at various
points, with alliances struck for short-term gain and military
action taken when doing so appeared advantageous. Joint
campaigns where two daimy acting in cooperation were not
at all uncommon, and these could be highly successful, as
the Oda/Tokugawa combinations at Anegawa and Nagashino
show. Of course, given the egos and inherant self-interest
often involved, joint efforts could backfire. If the Koyo Gunkan
is to believed, Takeda Shingen was able to defeat a coalition
of Shinano daimy (composed of Suwa Yorishige, Murakami
Yoshikiyo, and Ogasawara Nagatada) due to the inability of
the allies to agree on strategy. At Mikatagahara, a sizable
portion of the Oda contingent sent to assist Tokugawa Ieyasu
against Shingen in January 1573 simply fled the field when
they saw the difficult situation Ieyasu had gotten them into!
Sieges were a staple of sengoku warfare - made all the
more so after the introduction and spread of the arquebus.
Many sengoku battles were fought near forts, and were often
the prize involved in these struggles. It is important to note
that the average sengoku castle was a far cry from the
majestic constructions at Himeji and Osaka. Typically
constructed out of wood and reinforced by earth and the
surrounding terrain, these castles (stokade might be a
somewhat more apt description) relied on the arrival of a
relief force and/or the inability of the enemy to sustain a
seige for a long period of time. One of the downfalls of the
ubiquitous hilltop fort/castle (yamashiro) lay in the fact that
its water supply could be tenuous. Cutting the defenders'
access to water (be it via an aqueduct or stream) was a sure
way to force the fort to capitulate. Forts with ready access to
water were still reliant on their stores of food, and once either
of these was exhausted, surrender was almost certain (save a
desperate sally that drove away the attackers, which Shibata
Katsuie and his thirsty men pulled off at Chokoji in 1570). It

was therefore up to the overall holder of the fort to respond

with a relief force; if he failed to make an appearance and the
besiegers showed no sign of leaving, the fort's garrison might
simply switch sides - a common occurrence. The Mri
switched their allegiance twice (from uchi to Amako and
then back again) when faced with attack by a more powerful
The one draw to besieging a fort was that it required
feeding an army for an extended period of time, and this
often precluded determined attempts to bring down large
forts by siege in the early sengoku period. Additionally, the
longer a daimyo was tied up at one point, the more likely his
rivals would take advantage of his preoccupation. The
alternative, storming the fort, was a viable option given the
generally basic structure of the fortifications in question (as
opposed to the vast structures built at the dawn of the Edo
Period) but could be bloody - especially after the introduction
of firearms. For this reason, most forts were first given the
chance to simply surrender before being stormed. Another
not uncommon tactic was to tempt some of the defenders to
switch sides and betray their companions - perhaps by
throwing open the gates. Alternatively, the walls might be
mined to bring them down - which the Takeda attempted at
Nagashino Castle in 1575 - or a tunnel dug to allow a surprise
entrance to the interior of the fort - which the Mri attempted
at Shiraga Castle in 1563. In the final years of the sengoku
period, cannon were an option, although hardly a common
To sum up the points raised above, we'll look at the events
leading up to and surrounding the Battle of Kawagoe as a
case study in the way military action, the political situation,
and diplomacy were often intertwined. This is also of note
given the numerous mentions allotted the Hj in previous


n 1541 Hj Ujitsuna died and was succeded by his son

Ujiyasu. The Hj had been steadily expanding into the
Kanto region at the expense of the Uesugi and had scored
a distinct victory when they took Kawagoe in northern
Musashi in 1537. The Hj possesion of this fort, which lay
astride the Sumida River, signified a great threat to the
Uesugi's Musashi holdings and promised to act as a staging
point for further Hj pushes north. When Ujitsuna died, the
two branches of the Uesugi, the Ogigayatsu and Yamaouchi
(the Musashi and Kzuke branches of the clan), determined to
work together to take the fort back. Ujiyasu reinforced the
bastion and twice the Uesugi efforts to reclaim Kawagoe
failed. Not long after this, in 1544, Ujiyasu faced an Imagawa
advance towards Sagami Province and discovered that
Takeda Shingen had opted to assist Imagawa Yoshimoto,
bringing troops of his own onto the field. The armies met at
Kitsunebashi in Suruga Province and ended up withdrawing
with little fighting, but the news that the Takeda and Imagawa
were allied against the Hj encouraged the Uesugi. They
were suddenly joined by Ashikaha Haruuji. Haruuji, of Koga,
had previously been an ally of Ujiyasu but upon hearing of
the new threat the Hj now faced to their west, switched
sides. Thus reinforced, the Uesugi advanced on Kawagoe in
Hj Ujiyasu

ovember and surrounded it, isolating Ujiyasu's brotherin-law Hj Tsunashige (also an adopted son of the late
Ujitsuna) and his 3,000 men inside. The size of their
army must have been formidable, for while the 'offically
announced' figure of 80,000 seems very high, the allies had
the greatest confidence in their success. Ujiyasu, faced with

the threat of the Imagawa/Takeda alliance, could only look on

as the siege dragged into 1545. At that time a surprising turn
of events came to Ujiyasu's assistance. Takeda Shingen had
become involved in a war with Murakami Yoshikiyo of Shinano
and decided to secure his own flanks while he faced this
enemy. He moved to broker a peace treaty between the
Takeda, Imagawa, and Hj. In fact, only the Imagawa really
benefited from this materially, as Ujiyasu was compelled to
return most of the Hj lands in Suruga province. The
surprise treaty did allow Ujiyasu to turn his full attentions to
the situation at Kawagoe, where the defenders were slowly
starving. He attempted, with the assistance of the Takeda, to
come to some sort of political agreement with the Uesugi, but
was rebuffed, with the Uesugi taking his efforts as a sign of
his desperation. Ujiyasu therefore brought up 8,000 men to
the area and lead an all-out attack on the Uesugi
headquarters in the dead of the night, supported by a spirited
sally by Tsunashige and the Kawagoe garrison. The Uesugi
were completely caught off guard, and in the mayhem Uesugi
Tomosada, lord of the Ogigayatsu-Uesugi, was killed. The
Uesugi and Ashikaga troops were scattered, and Kawagoe
was saved. This battle would stand as one of the greatest and most decisive - night battles in Japanese history.
Kawagoe also marked a turning point in the fortunes of the
Hj and Uesugi clans. By 1551 the Ogigayatsu Uesugi had
been effectively destroyed and the Yamaouchi Uesugi driven
into exile in Echigo. In 1554 Ashikaga Haruuji was captured
by the Hj and placed under house arrest; by this time
Ujiyasu could claim most of the fertile province of Musashi as
his own and was secure in his place as one of Japan's great

Arnesen, Peter The Medieval Japanese Daimy: The uchi's
Rule in Su and Nagato Yale 1979
Asakawa, Kan'ichi The Documents of Iriki Yale 1929
Berry, Mary Elizabeth Hideyoshi Harvard 1982
Bryant, Anthony Sekigahara Osprey 1995
Hall, John Whitney Government and Local Power in Japan, 500
- 1700 Princeton 1966
Hall, John Whitney (ed.) Japan before Tokugawa Princeton
Hall, John Whitney and Marius B. Jansen Studies in the
Institutional History of Early Modern Japan Princeton 1968
Jansen, Marius Warrior Rule in Japan Cambridge 1995
Sato, Hirokai Legends of the Samurai Overlook 1995
Bessatsu Rekishi Tokuhon #85, Sengoku no Kassen Shin
Jinbutsu rai 1998
Rekishi Gunz Shirizu #5, Takeda Shingen Gakken 1999
note: Figures 1-3 drawn from Asakawa.