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. ( 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).
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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. ( 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. ( 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.