May 17, 2012
The soldiers Ryô encounters in chapter 27 of Serpent of Time are mostly ashigaru.
Ashigaru were originally tenant farmers recruited (or "volunteered") for service by the land owners. As local conflicts expanded into full-scale wars, they became the "regulars" in the clan armies, with the samurai forming the officer corps.
Though during the social upheavals of the Warring States period, these class distinctions often broke down.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was a peasant ashigaru under the command of Oda Nobunaga. He rose through the ranks to become generalissimo of the country, though he was denied the title of shogun because of his commoner roots.
Oda Nobunaga was the first warlord to realize that firearms in the hands of large numbers of ashigaru could turn the best samurai into cannon fodder, and successfully executed large-scale battlefield maneuvers.
But realizing that the "great equalizer" was inimical to feudal order, once the Tokugawa shogunate solidified its rule in the early 17th century, the ashigaru were made lower-class samurai and systematically disarmed.
Under the world's most successful gun control regime, firearms were banned and weapons technology was frozen in place. Specialty steel making continued apace, forging swords that were rarely used (despite what you see in samurai movies).
As a result, following Commodore Perry's arrival two hundred years later, Japan found itself grossly outgunned, facing off with 16th century cannon and matchlocks against state-of-the-art British, French and American warships.
It was one of those Sputnik moments, and Japan responded by scouring the world for the latest technology, eventually building a navy that in 1905 thoroughly thrashed the Russians with both superior tactics and weaponry.