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Elaborate Ceremonial Samurai Helmet. The helmet was one of the most important parts of a Samurai’s armor.

The Brutality and Delicacy of Samurai Armor: Superior Protection with a God-like Aesthetic

The Samurai class was officially dissolved over 150 years ago. Nonetheless, the warriors’ elaborate armor is still recognized globally as an iconic emblem of Japanese military strength and virtue. The samurai were an elite group of strictly trained and well-armored soldiers – even the horses were armored. The beauty of the samurai armor stems from a visual culture that valued a unique blend of brutality and delicacy – iron plates paired with fine silk ropes, a fierce fighter who was also chivalrous. Each element of a samurai’s armor was significant and personalized for him. Each suit took months to make. Unfortunately, few have remained intact over the centuries. But those that have survived are as wondrous to behold as they were hundreds of years ago.

Photograph of Japanese samurai in armor, 1860s.

Photograph of Japanese samurai in armor, 1860s. ( Public Domain )

Emergence of the Samurai

Artifacts representing distinctly Japanese armor date back to the 4th century AD. These were heavily influenced by ancient Chinese and Korean armor designs. The Japanese armor as we know it today did not appear until the samurai class emerged around the 8th century. Up until that time, Japan’s imperial army was made up of conscripted peasants. This did not produce an effective military force. Separatists, independent tribes, and ne’er-do-wells threatened the stability of the Empire as well as the safety of ordinary people. Unable to rely on the state military for protection, anyone with the means to do so (i.e. land owners and provincial lords) hired their own soldiers. “These forces, formed by provincial clan leaders, were basically private protection societies, miniature armies, adept at equestrian skirmishes. And although competitive with one another, they quickly saw the wisdom of forging strength-in numbers bonds” (Cotter, 2013).

The word ‘samurai’ comes from an old Japanese verb ‘to serve.’ Over time, the authority of the Emperor waned and the power of the armed elite grew. By the 12th century, samurai working for shoguns were the ruling class of Japan.

A Samurai’s Suit of Armor

The life of a samurai was not easy. Wars raged almost constantly during the 700 years of Japanese military rule. Moreover, the nature of battle was perpetually in flux. Equestrian archery gave way to masses of infantry with swords, that in turn gave way to soldiers using firearms imported from Europe or China. The many variations of a military campaign required a suit of armor that was both flexible and impenetrable.

Samurai Warrior Armor.

Samurai Warrior Armor. ( Public Domain )

Attempts to create the all-around perfect suit of armor led to the development of the distinctly Japanese defensive covering. The samurai was incased from head to toe in a series of overlapping layers made of iron, leather, precious and semi-precious metals, and silk. A typical samurai ensemble included “shoulder guards, shin guards, sleeves, thigh protectors, a skirt and a chest protector, along with a helmet, gloves, mask and boots, and a cushioning layer of silk underwear, [as well as] a range of indispensable accessories, among them two swords, a longbow and quiver of arrows, a selection of hats, a military baton, a fireproof coat and a large folding fan, ornamented with a big-red, rising-sun dot” (Cotter, 2013). Yet despite all of this, the samurai suit of armor weighed only about 40 pounds (18 kg), compared with the 60 pounds (27 kg) of armor worn by European knights.

Samurai warriors with various types of armor and weapons, 1880s.

Samurai warriors with various types of armor and weapons, 1880s. ( Public domain )

Bushido – ‘The way of the warrior’

As the samurai class gained in prominence, it developed an idealized code of conduct called bushido (‘the way of the warrior’), which is comparable to the code of chivalry of Europe. Heavily influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism, bushido informed warriors of how they ought to live and how they ought to die. When it came to living, a samurai ought to exhibit loyalty, discipline, austerity, and an appreciation for the fleeting nature of life. For this reason, “Japan's military elite were trained not only in martial skills but also in literature and the arts…including the tea ceremony, Noh theater and ink painting... The residences of high-ranking samurai were adorned with paintings of majestic hawks, lions and tigers, they collected and displayed valuable ceramics, lacquer and metalwork, and they wore the finest silk robes” (McArthur, 2014). Samurai warriors brought this refined sensibility with them into battle. It is the intersection of the martial and artistic nature of bushido that enabled the fantastic designs of samurai armor to develop.

The primary purpose of armor design was to signal a warrior’s allegiances. The secondary purpose was to strike fear into the heart of the enemy. The third purpose of the design was to be beautiful and impressive. According to the bushido code of conduct, the only worthy way for a warrior to die was in battle (even suicide was better than dishonor). For this reason, many samurai expected to be (and eventually were) buried in the outfit they wore into battle. So, it had to be magnificent.

Detail of Yokohagido type armor from the Mid-Edo Period. The samurai who wore this armor belonged to the Clan Ikeda.

Detail of Yokohagido type armor from the Mid-Edo Period. The samurai who wore this armor belonged to the Clan Ikeda. ( Public Domain )

Writing a review of a museum exhibition containing a large quantity of armor from the Edo Period (such as Yokohagido type), Meher McArthur explains some of the design choices frequently seen in samurai armor:

“Much of the samurai's body was covered by hundreds of iron scales held together with leather and silk laces to imitate snake or dragon skin. Typically, the scales were colored in restrained dark blues and browns, but lords with more resources and a sense of drama often favored vibrant blood red or even a gold lacquer finish. The iron chest plates, helmets, and masks had the strength to withstand swords, arrows, and even the bullets from imported European muskets. It could also be cast into ornate and often fantastic forms like ferocious demons or protective deities and its earthy tone provided a neutral ground for writhing dragons and other designs inlaid in gold.” (McArthur, 2014)

Topping off the Samurai’s Armor with the Essential Head Piece

The most important part of a suit of armor was the helmet and facemask because this was the best way to quickly intimidate an enemy. Also, because a slain fighter was sometimes decapitated by his enemy and his head taken as a trophy by the victor.

The masks were shaped to look like devils or mountain sprits. They were typically made of iron and then embellished with fur, rhino horns, and lacquers. Helmets, often the centerpiece around which the whole suit’s design was based, were constructed in several sections made of metal ornamented with antlers, horns, fur, feathers, gold, lacquer, and even paper maché. Armor adornments chosen were sometimes straightforward family crests or clan symbols, such as chrysanthemums or a crescent moon. Others featured fierce beasts such as dragons, lions, or birds of prey. Still other armors bore religious symbols, such as famed bodhisattvas or patron goddesses.

Exhibit of Samurai Helmets in the Museum of Stockholm.

Exhibit of Samurai Helmets in the Museum of Stockholm. ( Public Domain )

By the 18th century, the shoguns had managed to bring peace to Japan. Samurai had little work to do except maybe become bureaucrats or work for hire (think Seven Samurai ). Still, suits of armor continued to be produced for ceremonies and for display in wealthy households. More of these survive today than the original 12th century battle armor, but they are nonetheless incredible to behold.

Top Image: Elaborate Ceremonial Samurai Helmet. The helmet was one of the most important parts of a Samurai’s armor. Source: Public Domain

By: Kerry Sullivan

Resources:

Cotter, Holland. "Fighters With a Wardrobe to Match."  The New York Times . The New York Times, 02 May 2013. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/03/arts/design/samurai-at-the-museum-of-fine-arts-boston.html

McArthur, Meher. "Beauty in Battle: The Refined Artistry of Samurai Armor."  KCET. KCETLink Media Group, 11 Nov. 2014. Web. https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/beauty-in-battle-the-refined-artistry-of-samurai-armor

The Vintage News. "The Elaborate Armor of the Yokohagido Type – Early to Mid-Edo Period: 17th-18th Century."  The Vintage News . The Vintage News, 28 Apr. 2016. Web. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/08/28/yokohagido-armorsamurai-2/

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