The Japanese ashigaru (lightfeet) were foot-soldiers of medieval Japan. The first known reference to ashigaru was in the 1300s, but it was during the Ashikaga Shogunate-Muromachi period that the use of ashigaru became prevalent by various warring factions.
Attempts were made in Japan by the Emperor Tenmu (673-86) to have a conscripted national army, but this did not come about and by the 10th century Japan instead relied on individual land owners to provide men for conflicts and wars. These horse owning land owners were the beginnings of the samurai class and the men who worked the land for the land owners became the common foot soldiers during times of war. These foot soldiers could have long ties and loyalty to the land owners which went back many generations.
The land owning samurai and peasant foot soldier combination fought in many wars and conflicts including the Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281. Constant warfare between the 1300s and the 1500s made the hiring and use of foot soldiers with no loyalty to a particular land owner necessary at times and these mercenaries or adventurers who were paid only in loot but were hard to control and not well trained and they could not always be counted on during a fight. It was these wandering mercenary farmer, foot soldiers for hire who eventually became what we call ashigaru.
Weapons and Armor
Ashigaru were commonly armed with naginata (curved-bladed spears), yari (straight-bladed spears), yumi (bows), and swords. In the 16th century the ashigaru were also armed with matchlocks of the type known as tanegashima. Their armour varied depending on the period, from no armour to heavily armored and could consist of conical hats called jingasa made of lacquered hardened leather or iron, chest armor (dou), helmets (kabuto), hoods (zukin), armored sleeves (kote), shin protection (suneate), and thigh protection (haidate). Light weight folding portable armour called tatami armour was commonly used by the ashigaru. Small banners called sashimono could be worn on their backs during battle for identification purposes.
Service in War
In the Ōnin War, ashigaru gained a reputation as unruly troops when they looted and burned Miyako (modern-day Kyoto). In the following Sengoku period the aspect of the battle changed from samurai's man-to-man fight to ashigaru's group combat. Therefore, ashigaru became the main force of battles and some of them rose to greater prominence. Those who were given control of ashigaru were called ashigarugashira. The most famous of them was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who also raised many of his warrior followers to samurai status. Yamauchi Katsutoyo was one of such samurai and later daimyo who rose from ashigaru.
New Weapons and New Tactics
Ashigaru formed the backbone of samurai armies in the later periods. The real change for the ashigaru began in mid 16th century with the introduction of guns from foreign traders, such as the Portuguese. Almost immediately local daimyo started to equip their ashigaru with the new weapon that required little training to use proficiently, as compared to the Japanese longbow which took many years to learn. As battles became more complex and forces larger, ashigaru were rigorously trained so that they would hold their ranks in the face of enemy fire.
The advantage of the new powerful ranged weapon proved decisive to samurai warfare. This was demonstrated at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, where carefully positioned ashigaru with muskets thwarted Takeda's repeated heavy cavalry charges against the Oda clan's defensive lines and broke the back of the Takeda war machine.
After the battle, the ashigarus' role in the armies were cemented as a very powerful complement to the samurai. The advantage was used in the two invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597 against the Koreans and later the Chinese. Though the ratio of the guns (muskets) and the bows was 2:1 at the first invasion the ratio became 4:1 at the second invasion since the guns were very effective.
Discontinuation of Conscription
Following the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate the conscription of ashigaru fell into disuse. Since ashigaru's change to the professional soldier was advanced after Oda Nobunaga, the ashigaru separated from the farmer gradually. When entering the Edo period, the ashigaru's position as the lower class samurai was fixed and the use of conscripts was abandoned for over two hundred years in Japan.