Sonae (備)

Sonae is a military unit organized during the wartime between the Sengoku Period (Period of Warring States) (Japan) and the Edo period.

It consists of various foot soldier (Japanese bows, matchlock guns and spears) units, cavalrymen, provision transporters, and so on. It refers to a basic unit that can execute independent operations.


Before the Sengoku Period, except for the troops based on the Ritsuryo system (ancient Japan), no troop organization existed that resembled sonae.
This is because after the destruction of the Ritsuryo system in Japan, troops had to be organized in a way that stressed relation based on lord-and-vassal bonds such as 'favor and service.'

However, during the Sengoku Period, conflicts between territorial provinces made it necessary to be always prepared for a war. Furthermore, new military potential such as the foot soldiers became available. As a result, the Sengoku daimyo (Japanese territorial lord in the Sengoku Period) began to organize sonae with independent battling capability, as part of a military system improvement in preparation for military actions.

During the early Sengoku Period, organization of sonae was still ill-defined. However, as the power of daimyo became centralized from around the mid Sengoku Period, organization of various groups, including cavalrymen, took place, such as the separation of various military branches among the foot soldiers. Furthermore, during the Edo period there was no more need for large-scale wartime mobilization, and as a result, the enrollment limit of sonae became almost fixed and it was perfected as a system.


There are various alternate names for sonae, but it is often used with multiple meanings including sonae.
Furthermore, sonae was originally used merely to imply 'troops.'
Therefore, the use of terminology even in this section should be acknowledged as an explanatory note. This applies not only to sonae, but also to the troops above and below it, as well as all the positions.

Examples of the use of each terminology are shown below.

Troop names

Other than meaning the smallest unit of military tactics in this paper, 'sonae,' 'shu,' 'tai,' 'kumi,' 'zei' and 'te,' may refer to units that contain multiples of such or the way such things are counted (for example, Oda zei (Oda forces), Ii tai (Ii troops), Saiga shu (gun troop), senbi sante (three vans of an army), and so on), or they may refer to troops of each unit of military branch below such or the way such things are counted (for example, yari gumi (spear fighter unit), teppo shu (gun fighter unit), yumi tai (the arrow-shooting unit), 大番六備).


Such and such daisho' (general), 'such and such bugyo,' 'kumigashira' (captain), 'ban gashira' (head of a group) 'mono gashira' (military commander) ('such and such' is replaced by samurai, samurai, ashigaru, teppo, yari, yumi, and so on) refer to commanders of the sonae or the captains of various troops under the commanders. The commander of an ashigaru troop was called ashigaru daisho until ashigaru split into various military branches. Later, the commander was called teppo taisho, nagae (spear) taisho, and so on. Bugyo here is completely different from the provincial bugyo jobs such as machi bugyo (town magistrate). These people were from families whose social ranks were several steps above those who were assigned to become town magistrates.

Scale and make up

Sonae personnel consisted, in general, of 300 to 800 men. In the case of army headquarters sonae, there were about 1500 men. However, these numbers increased or decreased depending on the daimyo's kokudaka (a system for determining land value for tribute purposes in the Edo period), wartime combat personnel as well as the reserves for rearguard supporters that needed to be mobilized, and the task of each sonae. Incidentally, one of the criteria for a feudal lord with a kokudaka of 10,000 koku to become a daimyo was his ability to organize at least one sonae.

Next, organization of a basic sonae is shown (mid-Edo period). The order and the breakdown shown here are those of Minbusaemon HONDA's sonae during a military march, which was one of the nine sonae that belonged to the Maebashi Domain Sakai clan Uta no Kami (director of bureau of music) Sakai family, who was a daimyo with a kokudaka of 125,000 koku (Shosaku TAKAGI 1990).

Hata gumi (standard bearers)

It is also known as hatamochi or matoi umajirushi. Hata bugyo (a samurai) led the hatamochi ashigaru (banner-bearing foot soldiers) and umajirushimochi ashigaru (foot soldiers bearing umajirushi (the commander's battle standard)), who carried the ohata (large flag) (nobori (flag), gunki (war banner)) which was the proof of the sonae, the hatajirushi (flag emblem) of the samurai daisho (samurai general) leading the sonae, and the oumajirushi (large battle standard of the commander).

They showed the position of the sonae to those on the inside and the outside, and they displayed their military might. They did not participate in the battle, but this was an honorary job.

Breakdown - 2 samurai, 5 hokonin (servants), 16 foot soldiers, 5 chugen (soldiers one rank below common soldiers), 4 ninpu (laborers), 1 kuchitori (a person who leads the horse) (33 total), 1 cavalry horse and 1 packhorse (total of 2 horses).

Teppo gumi (gun squad)

Teppo gumi gashira (captain of the gun squad) (samurai) commanded the teppo ashigaru (foot soldiers carrying guns) and teppo ashigaru kogashira (junior captain of the teppo ashigaru) (both referred to as ashigaru). Other than that, there were teppo gumi nida (provision transporters for the gun squad) (laborers), and they fought in the shoot-out at the beginning of the battle.

At the beginning, they were few in number and they belonged to the same infantry as yumi ashigaru (foot soldiers who are archers). However, as times changed their number increased. During the Edo period, there were two teppo gumi placed within one sonae, and they became the principal force of the foot soldiers.

Breakdown of teppo gumi 1 - 1 samurai, 5 servants, 36 foot soldiers, 11 laborers, 2 kuchitori (total of 55), 1 cavalry horse and 2 packhorses (total of 3 horses).

Teppo gumi 2 - 1 samurai, 4 servants, 36 foot soldiers, 11 laborers, 2 kuchitori (total of 54), 1 cavalry horse and 2 packhorses (total of 3 horses).

Nagae gumi (spear squad)

Nagae is also written as yari (槍) or yari (鑓). Nagae bugyo (samurai) commanded the nagae ashigaru (foot soldiers with spears) and nagae ashigaru kogashira (junior captain of nagae ashigaru) (both referred to as ashigaru). Other than that, there was nagae gumi nida (provision transporters for the spear squad) (laborers).

At the beginning, they were the principal power of the foot soldiers, and their task was to attack the enemy foot soldiers with nagayari (at the beginning, they were two ken in length, then they later changed to two-and-a-half ken to three ken) by jabbing and hitting. Later, the principal power was transferred to the guns because of both improved quality and increase in the quantity of guns. Their tasks shifted to protective ones, such as defending of the gun-bearing troops and samurai daisho.

Compared to other foot soldiers a larger number of nagae ashigaru personnel was mobilized during wartime. Therefore, during peaceful times the yari ashigaru members were the first ones to be laid off. The remaining personnel's social status was usually that of goshi (country samurai) or servants.

Breakdown - 1 samurai, 2 servants, 30 foot soldiers, 3 laborers, 2 kuchitori (total of 38), 1 cavalry horse and 2 packhorses (total of 3 horses).

Kiba tai (cavalry)

This is the penetrating force of sonae, consisting of cavalrymen and their samurai family servants as its fundamental unit. The low-ranking samurai with an income of about 200 to 300 koku became troop members. Higher-ranking samurai of 1000-koku class served as kumigashira (captain of a group) (also called bangashira or monogashira), but they could also be dually assigned as samurai daisho.

Moreover, in the case of army headquarters sonae, the cavalry guarding the daimyo was called umamawari (horse guards), and it was the most elite cadre within the cavalry.

The task of the cavalry was to attack and penetrate through the areas where fighting by the foot soldiers became sparse, and also to counterattack in such cases. Therefore, they responded either by attacking on horsebacks or by getting off the horses and advancing on foot with their samurai family servants, depending on the situation.

They were equipped mainly with spears, but other than that they handled various weapons by letting the servants carry guns and bows and arrows.

Breakdown - 22 samurai, 58 servants (total of 80) and 22 cavalry horses (total of 22 horses).

Gungen (assistant deputy general) and metsuke (inspector of foot soldiers)

They were sent by the master of the samurai daisho, and they reported the battle achievements or breaking of the military code. In the case of gungen and metsuke, their object of inspection was the samurai. When the object of inspection were foot soldiers or komono (low-rank servants), they were respectively called hoko metsuke (inspector of foot soldiers) and komono metsuke (inspector of low-rank servants).

In general, for a commander such as samurai daisho, they were bothersome, but they were necessary in making (military) commands.

Breakdown - 3 samurai, 5 servants, 2 kuchitori (total of 9), 2 cavalry horses and 1 packhorse (total of 3 horses).

Drums and shells

They were used for advancing or retreating each sonae unit.

Besides the Japanese taiko drums and conch shells, bonsho (temple bells) and gongs were used. Depending on the action to be taken a different instrument was sounded (the number of soundings was not used to distinguish the action because of the possibility of mishearing).

Breakdown - 2 samurai, 3 laborers, 1 kuchitori (total of 6) and 1 packhorse (total of 1 horse).

Samurai daisho

Commander of sonae. Also called samurai taisho.

The daimyo himself assumed the position if there was only one sonae. If there were multiple sonae, then the daimyo assumed the position in the army headquarters sonae, and the daimyo's senior vassals assumed the positions at the other sonae (however, depending on the personnel selection, young samurai could also assume such a position).

Other than his own forces he also had kachi (foot guards) (if they were from his own forces they were called kinju (attendants)), whose task was to guard him, and tsukaiban (messengers), whose task was to relay the orders. He always had a koumajirushi (small battle standard of a commander) around him and he displayed the position and the military might of the samurai daisho.

Higher ranking samurai of several thousand koku class became a samurai daisho. Therefore, forces that protected him were large in number, and they also served as sonae's backups.

Breakdown - 1 samurai, 27 servants, 4 kuchitori (total of 32), 2 cavalry horses and 4 packhorses (total of 6 horses).

Yumi gumi (archer squad)

Yumi gumi gashira (captain of the archer squad) (samurai) commanded the yumi ashigaru (foot soldiers who were archers) and the yumi ashigaru kogashira (junior captain of foot soldiers who were archers) (both referred to as ashigaru). In addition, there were yumi gumi nida (provision transporters for the archer squad) (laborers).

Until the spread of guns, bows and arrows were the principal power among the shooting weapons. Furthermore, even after the spread of guns, bows and arrows remained in use even with a decrease in number, because arrows could be shot soundlessly regardless of the weather, and they could be shot quickly, and they were inexpensive, and furthermore, unlike the guns, hazuyari (the blade of a spear was attached to the tip of the bow, turning it into a spear in acute situations) could be used, to a certain degree, to fight even in short-range battles.

Breakdown - 1 samurai, 4 servants, 19 foot soldiers, 5 laborers, 11 kuchitori (total of 30), 1 cavalry horse and 1 packhorse (total of 2 horses).

Konida (provision transporters)

This is sonae's supply division. Mobilized horses and laborers (also called jinpu or 夫丸) were managed by 荷宰料 (person in charge of provision delivery) (ashigaru) and konida bugyo (samurai).

The size of konida was decided and organized as a result of weighing various factors such as whether the battle was an expedition or a defense, ease of delivering the goods during transfer as well as at the battleground (either by confiscation or by purchase), size of the mobilized army, condition of the people of the domain mobilized as troop members.

Konida bugyo often served as local governors within the domain during peace time. At the same time, they were also responsible for obtaining, managing and distributing the goods during transfers and at the battleground.

Breakdown - 1 samurai, 2 servants, 4 foot soldiers, 2 laborers, 8 kuchitori (total of 17), 1 cavalry horse and 8 packhorses (total of 9 horses). Konida of sonae composed prior to this counted 40 kuchitori and 40 packhorses.

In total, there were 35 samurai, 112 servants, 141 foot soldiers, 5 chugen, 39 laborers, 22 kuchitori (total of 354), 32 cavalry horses and 22 packhorses (total of 54 horses).

The servants were the samurai family servants of samurai, and chugen, laborers and kuchitori were samurai family servants of the daimyo.

Marching formation

As mentioned before, sonae formation during a military march consisted of banner, teppo gumi, nagae gumi, cavalry, samurai daisho, yumi gumi and konida.

In addition, there was an example of banner, teppo gumi, nagae gumi, yumi gumi, samurai daisho, cavalry and konida (there also existed sonae in which the yumi gumi was omitted from the latter).

It is considered that the difference depended on how the konida in the rear was guarded (the former by the yumi gumi and the latter by the cavalry). Sonae's squad line up was arranged in the order that was convenient for organizing into most battle arrays (jindate (battle arrays)). However, details differed depending on the daimyo who organized it. The same can be said about the battle array.

Battle array

Battle array is also called jindate. Each squad was positioned in the marching formation in preparation for a battle against the enemy.

Sonae's battle array was unlike the western-style tercio (Spanish square) or tercio to tercio attack formation in that there were no strict rules. In addition, each troop was lined up in a row (two rows in some cases) instead of taking a densely packed formation. Therefore, their positioning was altered often depending on the battle conditions. However, it seems that the basic strategy was to place the foot soldiers in the front and the cavalrymen in the rear, forming a battle front with the former and penetrating through it with the latter.

Because of this, compared to the western battle array of the same period, sonae possessed higher mobility and topographical adaptability. It also allowed mobility and enabled individual units to take a detour on complex land formations, as well as instantaneous transition from the marching formation to a battling array, but its impact of head-on collisions was quite inferior.

Furthermore, battle arrays such as the fish scale and "V" formations were not emphasized in individual sonae units. Basically, these battle formations were reflected in the positioning of troops above sonae. Among military science books from the Edo period, there are those that show how the battle arrays were organized within sonae units. However, during the Sengoku Period and the beginning of Edo period where the actual wars took place, the majority of the foot soldiers were soldiers to be mobilized. Forcefully maintaining such a complex battle formation would lead to a loss of mobility, and it would not be realistic.

From the folding screen drawings of battle scenes of the Sengoku Period, in which battle scenes are depicted and the battle formation can be identified to a certain degree, Figure 1 shows the pattern diagram of Shingen TAKEDA's army headquarters sonae (left) from the folding screen drawing of the Kawanakajima Battle, which belongs to the Iwakuni Historical Museum, and that of Ieyasu TOKUGAWA's army headquarters sonae (right) from the folding screen drawing of the Battle of Sekigahara, which belongs to the Fukuoka City Museum. Figure 2 shows the pattern diagram of a general sonae (before battle). Incidentally, in Ieyasu TOKUGAWA's army headquarters sonae in Figure 1, the independent sonae of Saemon no jo SAKAI drawn at the center is omitted, and only the unit under the direct command of Ieyasu is shown.

Differences depending on the kokudaka

Daimyo belonging to the 100,000 koku class possessed several sonae. For high-class daimyo belonging to several tens of thousand koku class, it was possible to possess several multiple units of such sonae grouped into one te (a single unit) (that is, a single te unit of troops had military power equivalent to that of a daimyo belonging to 100,000 koku class). In the case of the latter, if there were too many troop members to be commanded then it would become impossible for one single commander to fully take even the overall command. Therefore, in most cases, one te unit was mobilized, either alone or together with other multiples, which were then considered as an independent unit.

Figure 3 shows a diagrammatic representation of how Ieyasu TOKUGAWA's troops were composed at the Siege of Odawara, as recorded in Butoku Henen Shusei (however, there is room for reexamination of the army headquarters sonae).

In this figure, each te unit consists of multiple sonae in both 先手衆七手 (first group consisting of seven te units) and ニノ先手衆七手 (second group consisting of seven te units) (though the former contains more sonae in number). Compared to single sonae, it was possible for them to be more flexible in taking tactical actions. This squad was a tactical battle unit in terms of its ability to execute plans independently on a battleground, as well as in terms of other characteristics mentioned later.

Furthermore, the breakdown of a te squad was not very different from the composition of hatamoto (banner men, a direct retainer of the bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun)) squad, even though there was a difference in their size (army headquarters sonae is explained in the next section). In most cases the number of members in one te squad was 2000 to 5000, but just as with sonae, the number changes depending on various conditions. In this case, if the number of personnel did not meet the required number for a te unit, then several similar lower-ranking daimyos were combined to create one te unit. Higher-ranking daimyos with greater than the required number of personnel, on the other hand, would be split, as in Ieyasu TOKUGAWA's troops mentioned above, and used as multiple te units. Of course, in some cases the tactical actions were executed by single sonae units, and not all of them necessarily belong to one te unit.

Army headquarters sonae

There was a large difference between a daimyo who could have only one sonae and a daimyo who could organize multiple sonae in terms of sonae organization, particularly in the army headquarters sonae led directly by the latter daimyo.

The army headquarters sonae would have multiple sonae under its command. Therefore, it became necessary to have two systems of command with one taking the overall command and one commanding the army headquarters sonae itself. As a result, in lieu of the daimyo (sodaisho (commander-in-chief)) who took the overall command, some of the senior vassals took command of the army headquarters sonae (sample Figure 3, mushabugyo (warrior commander)). Or, the captain of the cavalrymen within the army headquarters sonae served as the battle commander of the sonae by placing the foot soldiers (although not clear) under his command.

Furthermore, the army headquarters sonae differed from other sonae. It included additional supporting personnel of kohei (military engineer) (mine development specialists, kurokuwa (construction workers), kobushin gumi (samurai without official appointments who received small salaries)), accountant (nandokata clerk, yuhitsu (secretary)), cooks (kitchen workers), physicians and monks (monks accompanying samurai to war). Moreover, it also included large-scale provisions transporters which oversaw other sonae in addition to the army headquarters sonae (it is omitted in Figure 3, but there exist a jinbabugyo (camp commissioner) and a commissioner managing the temporary quarters construction in Ieyasu's army headquarters sonae).

Like the living quarters construction unit (division that constructed camp at the battleground), there were squads organized as independent troops, and there existed various job types.

The yoriki doshin system

In cases where multiple sonae were organized, a senior vassal became the samurai daisho and took command of the sonae except for the army headquarters sonae. However, the majority of the personnel making up the sonae were not his retainers but they were also the vassals of the same daimyo. The personnel was organized into a sonae as an order by the daimyo. They were placed under the senior vassal as a reinforcement, but they did not in any way become his vassals.

This is called the yoriki doshin system, and it was an effective strategy in organizing and commanding sonae without giving too much power to the senior vassal.