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Heraldry for Samurai Skirmish Wargames

Having got my range of samurai decals on sale I thought I’d write a brief article about different ways they can be used to make interesting forces for Samurai Skirmish games set in the Sengoku period.

Samurai heraldry is complicated. There’s not a lot of contemporary evidence for the patterns of banners that were used in battle by different forces and usage varied hugely, between and within clans and over time. I have an article about the resources and references I’ve used to design my decals and in the creation of my own forces here on the website.

A – Samurai Leader; B – Samurai; C – Yari Ashigaru gashira (sergeant); D – Yari Ashigaru; E – Yumi Ashigaru Gashira; F – Yumi Ashigaru (bowmen); G – Teppo Gashira (Teppo Sergeant); H – Teppo Ashigaru (arquebusier). All models are Dixon Miniatures

Here’s the force I’m going to use as an example in this discussion, the models all come from Dixon Miniatures and fitted with Dixon nobori and sashimonos (I will use the term “banners” to describe both these types throughout this article). It’s been put together for games of the Test of Honour from Grey for Now Games, but it would work for other samurai skirmish games. .

I have decided to leave most of the ashigaru without sashimonos and I’ve only put them on sergeants and on some of my yari ashigaru. This is a balance between what I think was probably most common historically (only sergeants with sashimonos) and the other extreme where just about every ashigaru in a force could be wearing a sashimono. That’s just my personal choice and I certainly wouldn’t criticise anyone taking another approach, part of the attraction of samurai gaming is having a lot of colourful banners in your force. They’re your toys paint them how you want and remember the “Rule of Cool” is important.

In this post I will discuss some of the approaches a wargamer could take when painting the banners on such a force in a way that’s at least historically plausible and in some cases may even be historically accurate. If historical accuracy is really important to you I strongly suggest you do your own research. Don’t rely on what I say here, I may well be wrong about something. I have a list of books and online resources you might find useful elsewhere on this site and I can help you create your choice of banners with my range of waterslide decals.

And, of course, you’re quite free to make up a completely fictitious scheme for yourself.

Approach One – keep it really simple

Despite the fact that the main objective of this post is to promote my decals I’m going to start off discussing how you can get yourself a force with historically plausible banners just using your paintbrush.

All you need to do is choose a simple pattern that you can paint easily and then use it on all your banners.  The red band on a white banner shown in the picture below is a good example. It was used by some branches of the Sanada clan, branches of the Naito clan,  and Okudaira Sadamadsa.    Other historical easy to paint schemes would be Goto Mototsugo (plain white nobori, plain black sashimonos),  Kimura Shigenaga (everything plain red) and Yuki Naomoto and Hosokawa Haramoto (white band on a black background).  There are others.

White banners with a single red stripe were used by the the Naito and Sanada clans and are quick easy to paint free-hand.

Some people (certainly not me) have good freehand skills and can paint more complicated patterns. I have a couple of friends who can hand paint circles to a reasonable consistent size, I just reach for my design software and make some decals.

Approach two – Get yourself some mon transfers (then keep it simple)

A common pattern for the banners that you might expect to find in a small skirmish force like this would be for them all to have a clan mon on a common coloured background.   There are many, many, examples of this pattern of usage. 

Judging by what’s seen in book illustrations and the screen artwork showing  battles the commonest colours for the banners themselves look to me to have been (in descending order) white, black then red, with the other  two of the “five lucky colours”,  blue and yellow, coming a bit behind and other colours being somewhat rare.  The original, and most common, combination for nobori and sashimonos was black mons on white backgrounds amnd this remained very common throughout the Sengoku period. It’s a very safe choice. Here I’ve used it in a Tokugawa force.

Tokugawa banners were mostly a black black on a white background though you sometimes see gold mons on a white background.

In many cases things were slightly more complicated than this. A large part of the Hojo army was made up of the Go-shiki Sonae, the “five coloured regiments”. These regiments all used banners showing the Hojo mon on a coloured background, black, white, red, blue or yellow. Some of the banners also had black bands on them which were used to differentiate divisions within the regiment. In this case I have created a force from the Yellow Regiment using nobori with a broad black band at the bottom and sashimonos with two thinner bands at the top.

Troops from the Hojo Yellow Regiment commanded by Hojo Tsunashige (aka Hojo Tsunanari)
My own favourite samurai skirmish force, and the one I play with most often, has banners based on those used by by Sanada Yukitaka.  The nobori and sashimonos all have the Sanada Rokumonsen (six coin) mon in black on a red background.  Six coins was the toll to cross the ferry to the Buddhist afterlife so the Sanada are telling the world they’re not afraid to die in battle.

Approach Three – differentiate your troop types

One of my favourite sashimono patterns is this sakurajima dakon (giant radish) used by Kakizaki Kageie, a vassal of Uesugi Kenshin who led the Uesugi vanguard at the fourth Battle of Kawanakajima. There are pictures, online and in in various books, showing Kagei leading his samurai into battle wearing these sashimonos, but I have not been able to find any information about what was worn by his Ashigaru (or even if they even wore sashimonos). I’ve chosen to give mine sashimonos patterned similarly to the Kakizaki Nobori, which had a black geometric shape on a white background. That’s a pattern of use you see in other clans, why not the Kakizaki?

A Kakizaki warband. The samurai have sahimonos with a sakurajima dakon (giant radish) the ashigaru have a geometric pattern, black on white.

Approach Five – add some special characters

Individual samurai who were family members of the Daimyo or who had distinguished themselves in some way often wore sashimonos quite different to those worn as standard by clan forces and you can add a bit of interest to a force by having a single Samurai wearing a different sashimono to the rest of the force.

This Hojo force is led by one of the Hojo Go Hatamoto (personal retainers) who has been put in charge of a force of samurai and ashigaru from the Hojo Yellow Regiment (see above). The Hojo Go Hatamoto wore sashimonos with single kana (symbols for syllables) on them.

A Hojo Go Hata mono is pictured here leading my force from the Hojo Yellow Regiment.

As mentioned above close members of a Daimyo’s family sometimes wore sashimonos different to the normal samurai, often one using the family mon. In the picture below there’s a samurai wearing the Naito mon on a white sashimono which I sometimes use as a leader for a Naito force all wearing their normal sashimonos. I have no evidence whatsoever that this happened historically, but it seems plausible and it makes remembering who the leader is easier.

The samurai leader in the centre of this picture is a close relative of the Daimyo and wearing a white sashimono with the Naito clan mon.

The Naito were vassals of the Takeda (period) and this next Naito force is being accompanied by a samurai from the Takeda Blue Regiment, Perhaps he’s there as leader, or perhaps he just observing. It’s probably more likely that an added leader like this would have come from the troops under the central control of Takeda Shingen who mostly wore white sashimonos, but I like the blue.

A Takeda samurai leads this Naito force.

By the time of Sekigahara the Naito were vassals of Tokugawa Ieysu and this next Naito force is being accompanied by a Tokugawa retainer. The red band on white sashimonos were also used by the branch of the Sanada clan that were fighting for Ieysu during that period, so I can use them for that as well.

A Tokugawa retainer leading a Naito force.

For the examples in this article I restricted myself to using the sashimonos provided with the Dixon Miniatures I have used. But there are many other variations in the patterns of banner use that involve troops using different types of sashimonos, I’ll be writing an article about these just as soon as I can get my hand on some.

As you can probably tell I like to make my forces look historically plausible, But I do not feel the need to confine myself to cases where we have historical evidence of what was used by a given clan at a given battle, which are few an far between. And I’m quite happy to make up details as long as I think they’re plausible.

Other people’s approaches vary, you can find historical examples that are documented if you look or you can just make something up. It’s your game after all and I have done some rather ahistorical custom designs for customers. Ask for details if you’re interested, they may well be cheaper than you think.

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