The most iconic feature of samurai warfare must be the use of various flags and other devices to proclaim the legacy and ambitions of the soldiers assembled beneath them. As a wargamer of the period, it can be incredibly interesting yet also challenging to bring these to your tabletop.
Before we begin to go into detail, I'll cover a short history of these heraldric tools. They changed a lot over time, both in design and use, so you'll be well off with understanding why and how they developed. After that, I'll cover different types of flags, and what to consider when using them in your armies.
Origin of Japanese Battlefield Heraldry
The use of battlefield heraldry evolved over time in Japan, just like in any other place. It had a humble beginning in the form of flags with family crests used during battle. So during the Gempei War in the 12th century, the Taira and Minamoto would raise their red and white banners, telling friends and foe. But while some individual flags existed, they were not part of a comprehensive system yet. It's not even clear to what extent these banners had the family crests that we associate the two factions with, or if they were purely red and white respectively. Instead of the family crests so familiar to us, early samurai flags often consisted of written prayers to the god of war, Hachiman. The prayer style flags would continue to exist later on as well.
These early flags would primarily be long poles with a horizontal bar attached to the top by rope, with a streamer type flag hanging down from the bar.
A simple system of fighting under a simple coloured banner worked as long as a central government existed, and most wars were basically between two sides. However, it doesn't take long before we see the beginning of individual designs used to tell people apart on the battlefield. In contemporary depictions of the Mongol invasions (1274 and 1281) we start to see coloured flags with family crests on them. Individual lords would use heraldry to stand out, and then let artists depict the battles with these heraldric flags as evidence when claiming rewards for their feats in combat.
These were still more like regimental flags, not individually carried flags like the ones appearing later. But they worked well for distinguishing which part of the army fought under which general.
After the Mongol Invasions, the political and military power fractured. In practice a feudal system replaced the Emperor’s hegemony, with a central military government led by a Shogun. This increase in importance and wealth of the warrior caste only helped to fuel their interest in standing out on the battlefield.
As the Ashikaga shogunate fell and the country devolved into civil war in the mid-15th century, the soldiers in the field needed new methods to both tell each other apart. The regional administrators had cut their ties to the central government, preferring to rule the land themselves as daimyo. By now the battles could be between complex allegiances, with several families on both sides. In this new world, heraldry became more important than ever before.
Organization Through Heraldry
The Sengoku Jidai, or civil war era that followed in the 15th and 16th century, saw two distinct phases that both introduced new needs for heraldry. The first part of the period saw the country fracturing more and more, with a huge increase in the number of local lords. These lords became masters of small domains as the central government crumbled. They would often come from rather humble beginnings, with more ruthless and cunning individuals overturning the old nobility. As a way to legitimize their claims, they would make their own family designs to impress their peers and subjects. Some would even fabricate a more noble heritage, such as when a part of the Ise clan decided to change their name to Hōjō and to adopt the heraldry of the clan that had previously ruled as the power behind the throne during the Kamakura period, creating the "Odawara Hōjō" or Later Hōjō.
The second half of this age of war saw the reverse process, as these lords repeatedly fought each other. The stronger lords would recruit more and more vassals, either by diplomacy or conquest. As their armies grew they included more divisions from more and more families, requiring new means of organization.
These developments led to several new types of flags. Divisions and regiments would start to carry tall banners called nobori, so that the lords could easily identify their forces. The lords and generals would introduce "horse banners", uma jirushi, which were unique flags that made them easy to find in the crowd. Their messengers and bodyguards would carry billowing balloon-like contraptions on their back, horo, to make them easy to see. And finally, even the individual soldiers would start to war flags on their back, sashimono, that made them easy to identify asarmies grew bigger by the year.
Types of Flags Used for Battle
Now let's take a look at various kinds of flags used on the feudal Japanese battlefields. Its' important to keep in mind that while these followed trends and some ways to use them were more common than others, there were no laws or regulations covering the entire country. So while we can look at what would be the typical use, there could always be exceptions.
This is the kind of flag attached to a bar attached to the top of the banner pole. They were not completely phased out as newer types of flags developed. Instead, they continued to exist in some armies, either as an alternative to the nobori banners designating units, or as uma-jirushi banners of an important lord or general.
These pictures show some common types of designs on nagarebata: text written on a coloured background, a symbol or family crest, and a simple geometric design (in this case two horizontal lines). This example also shows them being used together with nobori flags in the same army.
These flags identified larger units, and developed from the nagarebata. By attaching the flag on two sides, they became more sturdy and the designs became easier to read.
Initially these would be of a similar design, but many armies quickly developed more complicated schemes. The family crests or designs could be used on different coloured backgrounds, or use additional geometric shapes, to designate different units.
As the number of different flags in the army grew, the army HQ would include a standard bearer carrying a copy of each flag. In a large army, this meant that there would be a multitude of flags gathered around the HQ.
If you are making a tabletop wargaming army, you can consider putting at least one of these in every unit of your army.
Literally "horse insignia", these flags started out as a way to identify a lord on the battlefield. Initially they tended to be similar to the nobori, but with a big square flag with the clan insignia, rather than a tall rectangular one.
Like the other types of flags, these evolved over time. When generals started to use their own uma-jirushi, the more powerful lords naturally wanted to stand out even more, which lead to the distinction between "small horse insignia" (ko-uma-jirushi) and "great horse insignia" (ō-uma-jirushi). The latter tended to take new shapes, often unique ones that became famous for a lord, such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi's golden gourd banner or Tokugawa Ieyasu's golden folding fan banner. While these three dimensional designs were popular, other famous examples were written text on a large nobori style flag, such as Takeda Shingen's "Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain" (seen in the drama series Fūrin Kazan), or the zealous Katō Kiyomasa's banner that featured a mantra of the Nichiren sect.
Faithful to the theme of this article, the use of uma-jirushi escalated as well. Some lords would adopt additional flags to celebrate important events in their careers, sometimes demoting an old flag while still using it as a "small" flag. Their sons would inherit uma-jirushi, and then add their own ones. But during this they would all be carried together with the individual they represented, ensuring that the fighting would be fierces on both sides wherever they were seen.
Much of what is preserved about feudal era heraldry comes from a series of publications, also named "ō-uma-jirushi", released over a period of time in the first half of the 17th century by the monk Kyūan. This book covers a large number of lords and their personal heraldry. Unfortunately, it naturally covers the clans that actually survived the wars, and in some cases the descendants of the Sengoku period lords, but it still provide us with the most comprehensive documentation of these flags.
Sashimono 指物, 差物
These smaller sized banners were worn by individual soldiers, strapped to their backs. Most common were rectangular banners, usually a bit bigger for mounted troops, with either simple coloured designs or family crests of the lords they fought for. Anther rather common version was to wear between two and five smaller poles with thin strips of cloth attached to them.
Elite troops would sometimes wear three-dimensional sashimono, similar to miniature uma-jirushi, to distinguish them from the rest of the army. These would often be painted gold, have streamers attached to them, or in a similar way make the wearer stand out in the crowd.
Originally a type of cloak, the horo turned into yet another way to show off heraldry on the battlefield. This cloak would billow in the wind when a mounted wearer rode quickly, almost like a parachute, and both stand out and allegedly protect from arrows from behind. These grew in size, and would eventually even be affixed on a kind of frame so that it was always balloon-shaped.
The horo were usually worn by tsukaiban, a kind of elite cadre that would act as bodyguards, messengers, and similar tasks of highest importance. The horo could feature the family crest, often on a background that contrasted to the ones worn by the rest of the army. They could also be completely different, such as the centipede worn as a symbol for Takeda's tsukaiban. Finally, some simply had a single colour, or geometrical shapes such as lines.
Sode and Kasa Jirushi
These were smaller alternatives to the sashimono, either tied to the shoulder guards (sode) or to rings attached to the helmet (kasa). Made out of strips of paper or cloth, they would either have some text or heraldric design to identify the wearer and which side they fought on.
These are initially not very advanced, but often a piece of cloth or paper tied to the armour with a name or message written on it. These are called "sode jirushi" when attached to the shoulder plates, or "kasa jirushi" when attached to the helmet.
Winging It - Making Your Own Improvised Heraldry
If you are a wargamer and you just want to put a samurai army on smaller force on the table, a simple way to use heraldry is to adopt a family crest as your starting point. Several companies have water-slide decals that you can use if you don't want to attempt to paint multiple copies of these often intricate symbols by hand. A great generic heraldric device is the sun disc, which many families used for their battlefield heraldry and relatively easy to paint.
Then, you can use that clan symbol on a coloured field for your various flags. You can either use the same colour for the entire army, or different coloured versions for your units. Say, a white crest on a green flag for one part of your army, and a black crest on a yellow flag for the next, and so on.
Another way to distinguish your armies is to include simple shapes to your various units, such as drawing lines of different thickness at the top or bottom of the banners, black triangle fields at the bottom, and so on.
Finding Sources - Painting It Perfectly
This was just a short introduction to the topic. The follow-up question you might have by now is probably "so what kinds of banners should I use for Lord X at the battle of Y?"
The first issue to adress is that the most complete documentation on heraldry was done after the civil war period ended, with an emphasis on the winners that shouldn't surprise us. Battle screens, especially the contemporary ones, do help a bit to cover the gaps. But all these depictions focused more on the lords and generals, while sometimes not giving as much information on the rank and file troops.
That said, you can find a lot of nice information online. The Samurai Archive has a lot of information, especially in some threads on their forums, and also a lot of knowledgable people you can ask. More specifically, I'd point you to this thread on the old version of the forums, by Emmanuel Evalerio. He is probably the most knowledgable artist when it comes to samurai heraldry, and the thread covers the heraldry of a lot of important samurai, using different sources.
Books on Japanese Heraldry
When it comes to books, there's an Osprey title on samurai heraldry that is ok, but not great. Typical to Osprey titles it will give you a quick overview of the topic, and some interesting pictures, but it's not as useful if you are looking for heraldry for a specific lord, or if you want to look up the meaning behind a specific symbol.
Instead, there are two books in English that are great as reference books if you are really interested in the topic. The first one is the o-uma-jirushi. And by that, I mean the compendium written by Xavid Pretzer. It's a translated and annotated version, with the entire 206 pages of the original scrolls together with some essays about japanese heraldry and the context in which it was (and still is) used. I got the book when it was kickstarted a few years ago, but you can still find it through some online retailers.
The second one I actually didn't know about until I did research for this article. It's Japanese Heraldry and Heraldic Flags by David Phillips and the aforementioned Emmanuel Valerio. It's a new book published this year, with one part that basically explains the grammar of Japanese heraldry, and one part with may illustrations from Valerio where he describes the heraldry of various families and lords. While the second half might be of more interest for a wargamer than the first, I like the whole book as it gives a lot of information. Since I can't find a link to any available copies of the O-uma-jirushi, I'd say that this is probably the best available book right now.
If you have a question about a specific flag, don't hesitate to make a comment below, and I'll happily did through my sources and see if I can find something useful.