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Thursday, November 5, 2020

Uncovering the Stylish Complexity and Craftsmanship of Samurai Armor

The Worcester Art Museum is home not only to European arms and armor, but also the arms of other cultural groups including Japanese armors. Japanese samurai armor and the samurai themselves are especially intriguing sparking the imagination in much the same way as the knights and armor of medieval Europe. Here's an overview of the different types and styles of samurai armor represented in The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection at WAM. Let's get started on learning more about these historic artifacts.

First, who were the samurai? They were the armed retainers of greater lords in Japan with their role on the battlefield and society shifting over time. Naturally, this impacted the design of the samurai armor. To better understand of the armor itself, let's examine the various parts that make up a suit of Japanese armor. These are presented here in this illustration.

Wall art from "Helmutt’s House," part of the Museum's
Samurai! exhibition in 2015.

The armor of the samurai is known as a Yoroi, meaning armor. Another term, Gusoku, literally means a complete suit of armor. Sometimes a suit of armor is referred to as Rokugu, meaning six ingredients. This last, Rokugu, is about the six main components of the armor: the Kabuto, the Mempo (face mask), the Do, the Kote, the Hai-date, and the Sune-ate. There are several broad types and many styles of armor within those categories. In some cases, an armor can fall under multiple styles and we'll explore that in this WAM Update.

The Kozane armors are the first and oldest type. These armors were constructed of small scales, or kozane, about an inch in length vertically and a quarter inch horizontally, made of iron or hardened leather lacquered and drilled with holes. The lacquer provided water resistance to the kozane. These were laced to each other using leather or silk laces and overlapped at the edges to form long plate sections. The sections were then laced to each other in overlapping vertical layers. For the torso, these were tightly bound but were made of looser layers for areas requiring flexibility for movement. The laces were colored and often a blend of hues and patterns were used for decorative effect frequently relating to the samurai’s heraldry or mon

Kusazuri (tassets), Japanese, late 18th–early 19th century.
Iron, lacquer, and silk with gilding.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.694.1

A detail of the kozane construction.

The oldest style of kozane armor was the ō-yoroi, or great armor, which appeared in the 10th century when the samurai were mounted archers rather than swordsmen. It featured a box-like construction with four panels of kozane to cover the chest, back, and sides. The Do consisted of three joined sections: those of the chest, left side, and back; and a separate, right-side panel called a waidate.

When donning the armor, the waidate would be tied on first to cover the gap on the right side and then the do wrapping around the other three sides. On the front of the do would be a tsurubashiri, a piece of soft leather affixed to the front of the do primarily to protect the lacing from the samurai’s bow string. It possessed large sode that acted as shields. The ō-yoroi  sat somewhat heavily on the torso of the warrior, weighing about 60 pounds, and frequently lacked the hai-date and kote (or only one worn on the left arm freeing the right arm for archery). While adequate for horse archery, its boxy shape, however, made sword use difficult.  

In this image below, a samurai wears an ō-yoroi complete with tsurubashiri. He carries a quiver of arrows on his back plus a ring at his belt for holding a bow string.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japanese, 1839–1892),
Inamura-Ga-Saki Moon at Daybreak,
Portfolio/Series: Tsuki hyakushi (One Hundred Aspects of the Moon)
 月百姿. September 1886, Woodblock print; ink, color, embossing,
 and burnishing on paper, Prints, Alexander H. Bullock Fund, 2002.195 

The next style of kozane armor is the do-maru. It emerged in the 11th century as a tighter-fitting torso armor that wrapped around the body in a form called haramaki, or belly band, which tied around the side. It was used by lower-class samurai and ashigaru, or soldiers, who largely fought on foot and could not afford the more expensive ō-yoroi. It was lighter, under 40 pounds, and certainly more flexible than the o-yoroi and suitable for sword fighting. 

The role of the samurai evolved during the 13th to the 16th centuries and they increasingly fought dismounted with greater use of the sword. Additional defenses—such as the kote and hai-date—were added to protect the limbs. The sode gradually became smaller and less obtrusive. While the style faded from usage in the 16th century, due to the better protection offered by Tosei Gusoku, it along with          ō-yoroi saw a return to popularity as ceremonial armors during the Edo period (1603-1868).

Dō-maru gusoku (full set of armor for a samurai).
Japanese. Edo Period, early mid-18th century.
 Iron, leather, lacquer, silk, copper alloy, gold, hair, textile, paint.
Arms and Armor. Bequest of Dr. John C. Cutter. 1910.47

Armor for a Samurai with Mirror Maedate. Japanese.
Late 18th–early 19th century. Brass, iron, silk, and leather with lacquer.
 The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.712

The next type of armors is the Tosei Gusoku, or modern armors. These coverings were a reaction to the gradual adoption of firearms during the late 15th and into the 16th centuries. Constructed from ita-mono, or long laminated iron plates, these were riveted tightly together to form the do to provide better protection against firearms and melee weapons.

The ita-mono of the do proper could be aligned in strips vertically (tatehagi) or horizontally (yokohagi). These strips are sometimes visible or even hidden to resemble a smooth homogenous piece. Occasionally the joining rivets are obvious; in other cases, knotted laces were used. There are many variations in style. Unlike the kozane type, these were often only lightly laced so more of the plates were visible. The plates were frequently lacquered and painted with different colors and symbols. Wealthy samurai had their armor punched with extra holes to allow for traditional lacing patterns to mimic the older kozane armors often featuring embossed plates to emulate individual kozane, as seen in this image. 

Right and Left Osode (shoulder guard), Japanese, 18th century. Iron, silk cord, fabric,
 brass, gilding, and lacquer. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection.
2014.697.5 and 2014.697.6

A common style of Tosei Gusoku was the Okinawan do, meaning tub sided, which is a reference to the shape of do. The do consisted of a breast and back plate arrangement hinged on the left side and tied on the right. It was heavily used during the later Sengoku Jidai, the Age of Warring States (1467-1615) by samurai and ashigaru alike. 

The Okegawa do shown below is an example of okashi gusko, borrowing armor or, as it was known in Europe, munitions armor. These were armors owned by a lord who lent them to common soldiers, ashigaru, as they were unlikely able to afford their own. Frequently, these armors were marked with the mon of the owning family.


Tatami Gusoku (traveling or folding armor). Japanese. 19th century.
 Iron, leather, silk, hair, and lacquer.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.704 

Byo toji okegawa do was a style of okegawa do where the ita-mono had large knob-shaped rivets that bound the plates and could add to the visual aspect of the armor’s presentation. These rivets sometimes took the shape of mon, or heraldic symbols. Here's an example of Byo toji yokohagi okegawa do style armor.

Breastplate Japanese, late 18th–early 19th century.
Iron, lacquer, silk, brass, leather, paper, and bone, with gilding.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.694.9

Another style of Tosei Gusoku was the Yukinoshita do. This armor, named for the region of Japan where this style was developed, consisted of five large sections of plates designed to wrap around the body. The two examples of Yukinoshita do shown here also represent uchidashi do, an armor with an embossed decoration on the breastplate.

Suit of Armor with Embossed Fudo Myo-o and Bonji Characters.
Japanese. 18th century. Iron, textile, leather, lacquer.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.711

Breastplate of a Yukinoshita-Do Armor, with Embossed Design of a Dragon. 
Date-family crest/Japanese, 18th century. Iron, silver, copper alloy, gold lacquer,
 and silk cord. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.696.3 

Our last type of armor represented in the WAM collection is the Tatami-do, folding armor. It is made from small plates sewn to a fabric backing with gaps filled by flexible kusari, or mail armor. This armor was both easily stored and highly portable for traveling without the considerable bulk of a regular do. In addition to okegawa do, tatami do were often used as okahsi gusko.

Tatami Gusoku (traveling or folding armor). Japanese. 19th century.
Iron, leather, silk, hair, and lacquer. 
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.704

The various types of Japanese armor profiled and showcased in this WAM Update is far from comprehensive. All the artifact armor presented here is from the Edo period (1603-1868), with many made like the older medieval styles, such as the do-maru. These were meant as a show of status and for ceremony rather than for practical use.

These armors are rarely displayed because their heavily organic nature makes them more challenging to conserve even though they are newer than their European steel counterparts. 

We hope this overview sparks an interest that leads you to explore the fascinating subject of samurai armors.

To get started on that journey, don’t miss the opportunity to “Meet a Samurai Live! during WAM’s Travel the Silk Road Virtual Fall Community Day on Sunday, November 8 at 2:45pm. It's an ideal chance to learn more about samurai armors. Register here for the free online Community Day event, or follow the fun on Facebook Live.

Find additional details here on the virtual programs and activities planned for the Fall Community Day. Hope to see you as we Travel the Silk Road!

—By Neal Bourbeau, WAM Program Coordinator

    November 5, 2020

Neal Bourbeau, the WAM Update contributor,
dressed in samurai armor.

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