The yari (槍), which is the Japanese spear, was once considered the strongest weapon. Boosting a long shaft and large blade, it was advantageous on the battlefield. Some armies used yari that was up to about 20 feet, giving the wielders a great reach that kept them safe against enemies at a distance who were using anything shorter. It was to the point where the yari became a status symbol, and only permitted to elite warriors to train in. Yet, it has been overshadowed by the katana (刀), the Japanese sword that was considered to be the soul of the samurai from the Edo period onward. This is mainly in part of battlefield weapons being banned during the Tokugawa rule from the 1600s onward, and the adjustments warriors had to make with arming themselves with the next best thing.
Looking into when the yari made a huge impact was during the 1500s, which was the time period when many warlords utilized formations that involved soldiers being outfitted with this weapon. It was also during this period where the ideal image of a strong warrior was reflected upon those who rode into battle wielding a yari, dispatching enemy troops, and defeating other strong opponents. Notable figures were recorded who demonstrated exemplary skills while bearing this formidable weapon. A popular tag that begin to emerge in the pages of history-focused books was “Shichihon Yari” (七本槍), which refers to seven warriors who had displayed great bravery on the battlefield with the Japanese spear in hand during Sengoku period. For this article, we will look at the most iconic tale that portrays seven brave spearmen, along with a bit of twists due to actual accounts. Finally, we’ll touch upon different groups that are also hailed by this illustrious title.
SHIZUGATAKE SHICHIHON YARI
The most popular and renown group to bear the title goes to a select warriors who were employed under the ruling power of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Here’s how their tale begins.
In 4th month of 1583, after the death of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi rose up to claim the rights to continue his master’s vision of ruling Japan. He wasn’t the only one who had their sights on this goal, as he would clash in a power struggle against another former Oda loyalist, Shibata Katsuie. In 1583, they would meet both commanding an army of their own and exchange blows in combat within the rocky terrains of Shizugatake in Ika domain, Ōmi prefecture. This battle will be recorded as the “Battle at Shizugatake” (賤ヶ岳の合戦, Shizugatake no Gassen).
The outcome of this battle had Hideyoshi come out as the victory. What is significant to note is that he praised and gave honors to seven warriors for their exemplary heroics during the battle, whom are recognized today as “Shizugatake Shichihon Yari” (賤ヶ岳の七本槍, Seven Brave Spearmen of the Battle at Shizugatake). This was first mentioned in the 20-volume documentation “Taikōki” written by the Confucian scholar Oze Hoan (小瀬 甫庵) in 1626.
These seven warriors are the following:
- Hirano Nagayasu (平野長泰)（1559年-1628年）
- Wakisaka Yasuharu (脇坂安治)（1554年-1626年）
- Katō Yoshiakira (加藤嘉明)（1563年-1631年）
- Katagiri Katsumoto (片桐且元)（1556年-1615年）
- Katsuya Takenori (糟屋武則)（1562年-不詳）
- Fukushima Masanori (福島正則)（1561年-1624年）
- Katō Kiyomasa (加藤清正)（1562年-1611年）
Each of these warriors were not just random individuals, but were born in military families. Receiving the typical martial training many military families offer, they had their fair share of battle experience before the event at Shizugatake. It can be said that this battle did highlight their potential even more, elevating them up in rank even during the early years of Edo period in the 1600s.
DETAILS ON THE BATTLEFIELD
During the battle at Shizugatake, these seven individuals, wielding a spear each, are praised as being ichiban yari (一番槍). This title means not only being the first to engage with the enemy, but to do significant work that benefited the overall outcome for their side. Due to their high spirit and valor, they helped to turn the tides in the Toyotomi force’s favor of what was starting out to be a difficult battle. This was through gaining ground in areas around Shizugatake, as well as eliminating key figures on the Shibata force’s side, which caused a lost of morale amongst their ranks. Especially Fukushima Masanori, for he managed to take the head of Shibata Katsuie’s commanding officer, Haigo Ieyoshi (拝郷 家嘉). Masanori received the highest reward of 5000 koku (石, stipend in the form of rice per year), while the others received 3,000 koku each.
Other acclaims that add to these seven warriors’ merits include the following:
- Hirano Nagayasu defeating Shibata Katsumasa (柴田勝政), the adopted son of Shibata Katsuie.
- Katō Kiyomasa defeating Yamaji Masakuni (山路正国), a warrior who defected to the Shibata side and helped with the initial success the Shibata forces had during the battle. It was through a well-timed counterattack that helped not only turn the ties to the Toyotomi force’s favor, but allowed Kiyomasa to dispose of the traitor¹.
- Kasuya Takeyori defeating Yadoya Shichiemon (宿屋七左衛門). This event happened while fellow spearman comrade Sakurai Iekazu was locked in battle with Shichiemon. As Iekazu was injured by a cut from his opponent’s yari, Takeyori joined the fray and ran Shichiemon through with his own yari².
LEARNING THROUGH ARTWORK
Just as written accounts are considered valuable resources, so can be the same for visual artworks. There are various paintings that depict the battle that took place at Shizugatake at different museums in Japan. The most well known one is a folding screen version from Ōsaka castle, which has been duplicated by other establishments. These artworks also feature the Shichihon Yari, all with unique interpretations as these warriors engage with the Shibata force with their trusty yari in hand.
Since these are visual artworks, they tend to slight variations from the popular tale, but usually not without reason. For example, in the version from Ōsaka castle, the Shichihon Yari are located on the right side together, but the line up is different from what is usually recited. Wakisaka Yasuharu is replaced by another warrior named Ishikawa Heisuke. In another, these seven warriors are shown charging into battle together, but the difference here is Fukushima Masanori is located in another area, already defeated his target. In his place amongst the seven warriors is Sakurai Iekazu.
Why is this? Apparently, it was more than just seven individuals who were praised for their efforts during the battle at Shizugatake. There were 2 more names mentioned, which were Sakurai Iekazu (桜井家一) and Ishikawa Heisuke (石河兵助). They too are considered ichiban yari, and are recognized for their efforts on the field too. On top of this, they were rewarded the same 3,000 koku as the 6 others. So, should the group not be called Kyuhon Yari (九本槍, the 9 Brave Spearmen)?
Speculations on this evolve around the untimely deaths of both Iekazu and Heisuke, with the latter actually dying during the battle, which had his son receive the reward in his place. As for Iekazu, he would die later, but the cause is unclear. In a different 5-volume version of the Taiheiki by Kawasumi Saburōemon, it states that Iekazu died from an illness in 1596. However, in a different account, he dies 3 years after the battle due to the injuries he sustained from his battle with Yadoya Shichiemon, and shortly after, from a revenge battle with the younger brother Yadoya Jirōsuke (宿屋次郎助), where they clashed with tachi (太刀, battlefield swords), then wrestled in kumiuchi (組討, armored warriors grappling) before Iekazu successfully took his life with his knife. Whatever the case is, there is no disagreement on the fact that Ishikawa Heisuke and Sakurai Iekazu fell from grace, and are not praised in the same light as the other seven spearmen.
OTHER SHICHIHON YARI
The term “Shichihon Yari” is believed to have been invented in later times, much after Sengoku period was over and these famed warriors had passed. Due to this, it became a coin term that other writers used to speak about exemplified spear-wielding warriors during various battles. Below are a few examples.
1) Ueda Shichihon Yari
Early in the battle at Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Hidetada led a force of his own alongside with his father, Ieyasu. Hidetada’s force would make their way to Ueda castle, which was occupied by Sanada Masayuki. This encounter is known as “Battle at Ueda” (上田合戦, Ueda no Gassen). During this battle, seven warriors from the Tokugawa’s sided are recognized for their valiant efforts. Their names are the following:
- Saitō Nobuyoshi (斎藤信吉)
- Ono Tadaaki (小野忠明)
- Shizume Koreaki (鎮目惟明)
- Nakayama Terumori (中山照守)
- Asakura Nobumasa (朝倉宣正)
- Toda Mitsumasa (戸田光正)
- Tsuji Hisayoshi (辻久吉)
Highest merits go to Ono Tadaaki, but in a turn of events he was also punished soon afterwards due to a violation in military orders, which was considered a huge crime. While he would be pardoned at a later date, this incident does tarnish Tadaaki’s image abit.
Another surprising point about this battle is that Tokugawa Hidetada and his force lost the fight against Sanada Masayuki and his force. While noted as a defeat, it’s also important to point out that none of these warriors died during this battle.
2) Azukizaka Shihon Yari
Possibly the first real account of skilled spearmen comes from one of Oda Nobunaga’s campaigns. In 1542, Nobunaga lead an army east towards Azukizaka in Nukatagun, Mikawa no Kuni. There, he would clash with the military force of the Imagawa/Matsudaira coalition. This event, the 1st of the ongoing conflict between these groups, is known as “Battle at Azukizaka” (小豆坂の戦い, Azukizaka no Tatakai).
During this battle is the first mention of what can be considered skilled spearmen that controlled the tides of a battle. Here’s the names of these acclaimed warriors:
- Oda Nobufusa (織田信房)
- Oda Nobumitsu (織田信房)
- Sasa Masatsugu (佐々政次)
- Sasa Magosuke (佐々孫介)
- Okada Shigeyoshi (岡田重能)
- Nakano Ichiyasu (中野一安)
- Shimokata Sadakiyo (下方 貞清)
From the Nobunaga clan’s written account called “Shinchō Kōki” (信長公記), it is said that these seven warriors were formidable in forcing the opposition to retreat, leading to victory. Unfortunately, there is not much detail about what actually took place and the feat these warriors performed on the battlefield. Note that while we know about this battle from this source, the Matsudaira clan’s well-documented “Mikawa Monogatari” makes no mention of this event. What’s even more interesting is that there was 2 battles that took place at Azukizaka, the 1st being 1542, and the 2nd in 1548. Both clans have detailed accounts on the 2nd battle, while the 1st is only mentioned in Shichō Kōki. There are a lot of speculations regarding this 1st battle, and whether it actually happened on the level it is claimed to have been.
This here concludes our look at the yari through literature & artwork from Edo period. The tale of the Shichihon Yari offers a good look at how important and impactful this Japanese weapon was viewed during the Sengoku period, which influenced certain groups to continue to work with it even to modern times. Stay tuned for part 2, where we look at a few yari that were recorded as legendary treasures.
1) In another account, it is stated that a Hazumi Goemon (八月一日五左衛門), one of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s retainer’s men, had taken Yamaji Masakuni’s head.
2) Depending on the source, who is said to have killed Yadoya Shichiemon varies. While Sakurai Iekazu was outbested by Shichiemon and would’ve died if it wasn’t that he was rescued, it is said that he landed the killing blow. However, Iekazu was only able to do so after Kasuya Takeyori ran his spear through Shichiemon’s chest, incapacitating him.