Development of Samurai Armor throughout History

War is invariably tragic and cruel. On the battlefield, destruction reigns. In battle, it was the armor that bore the brunt of enemy attacks. Arrows, spears, wet by the rain, sullied by the mud, and trampled underfoot. The warriors of old went to great pains to see that their armor, destined for such rough handling and destruction, was made as attractive as possible. From the latter half of the 4th century to the 5th century, Japan was in a period of constant warfare.

In the 6th century, Japan thirsted for cultural knowledge. The introduction of Buddhism from the Chinese continent brought many kinds of Buddhist idols to Japan. Among them were figures of warrior deities. Although almost no examples of armor of this period exist today, it is believed that it was from about this time that the form of armor began to undergo change. However it was not until regional warriors began to make their own armor that armor distinctively Japanese in style came into being.

Pre-Samurai Armor. Tank iron helmet and armour with gilt bronze decoration. Kogun period, 5th century

In the 12th century, the early centralized state began to disintegrate. There ensued a period of wars between two powerful clans, the Genji and the Heike. Battle in those days was conducted on horseback. Cavalry dashed within range of the enemy and then released their arrows. In order to approach the enemy at close-quarters it was necessary for the attacker himself to be sufficiently protected. Iron plates known as Kyubi and Sendan protected his chest when the warrior was ready to fire. When attacking the enemy, the sleeve became a shield and together with the helmet made the horseback warrior a sort of human armored tank as he charged forward. When the warrior swings his sword at the enemy, the armored panels protect him from attack from behind. However, perhaps the most distinctive feature of the armor at the time of the Genji and Heike War, was the fact that it was highly decorative, much more so than was warranted by it’s fundamental protective purpose.

The 350 years encompassing the era of the Genji-Heike conflict and the period of the ensuing Shogunate regent government, founded by the victors, formed a golden era in the history of Japanese battle armor. The armor of this period is particularly classical in style and is known as O-yoroi, or grand armor, referring to it’s extravagant splendor. These examples of armor, as well as the rounded form of the helmet and the deep rich colors, all show the influence of an elegant art form. The braids, the main function of which was to lace together the iron plates forming the armor itself, were dyed in brilliant hues. In the same manner that the clothing of the aristocratic ladies of the court indicated their artistic taste, the warriors who rose up from the provincial regions manifested their artistic taste in their own formal armor. Armor braid was sometimes dyed a dozen times to obtain the desired color. Some armor suits feature ornaments made of pure gold

Tosei Gusoku Samurai Armor. Iron, lacquer, braided silk, brocade, leather wood, horsehair, and metals including gold. Edo Period (1615-1868)

The patterns of the armor of this period often reflected the season of the year in which it was made. This was due to the fact that plant dyes were made from indigenous vegetation, and also perhaps reflected the Japanese love of the changing seasons. The ancient warriors of Japan thus had their armor designed in colors as elegant and brilliant as the finery of court ladies. Such designs of flowers and alike are seen only up through the 13th century when the influence of the old court culture was still strong. After that, it became customary to use designs symbolizing bravery and heroism such as the legendary lion or dragon. The technique of braiding, which developed from about the 8th century, saw it’s most effective use in armor. In artistic style, the craft of armor was no doubt mainly a reflection of the art of court culture, however utilization of court art for ornamenting battle wear was an ironic twist.

For lightness, the armor was made by lacing together iron plates and cowhide. The pieces were then lacquered to provide greater durability. More than a dozen coatings of the lacquer were applied. This process took from two to three months. For greater protection still, layers of volcanic ash were then applied. As each suit of armor was made to order, a warrior had to put in his order several months or even half a year in advance. The making of such expensive armor was a great economic drain on the warriors, however warriors willingly sacrificed everything to have their fine suit of armor made. It was a disgrace to be clad in anything but the finest of armor. Formal armor raised the level of craftsmanship and created a new art form. However the warfare that gave birth to the battle armor destroyed peace and culture, robbed the people of their homes and even of their lives. How did the rich beauty of this armor appear in the eyes of the fleeing commoners?

Battle of Kawanakajima

At the end of the 13th century, a great army from China’s Yuan dynasty invaded Japan. The battle tactics employed by the Yuan army was something that the Japanese had never seen before. The Japanese horseback warriors, clad in their fine armor, found themselves helpless before the lightly clad foot soldiers of Yuan. Due to the invasion from China and other circumstances, the power of the regency government waned, and eventually the Japanese court split into two rival factions. A period of continuous warfare ensued. Battles, instead of being man to man combat taking place in open fields, came to be conducted in group action in the hills. No matter how beautiful or how durable the old formal armor was, it was unsuited for protection in the new era, and formal armor became obsolete.

Now, the simpler Do-maru and Haramaki armor, the light body protectors, formally used only by warriors of lower rank, came into their own. The helmet, visor, protective sleeve, and a girdle for holding the quiver were added to this simple body protector to make a complete set of armor. The era of fighting with bow and arrow had passed, and the era of spear-fighting had arrived. Warfare increased, and consequently the demand for suits of armor did as well. Armor-makers sprang up in large numbers in the various regions; even so, craftsmen were unable to keep up with demand, and as a result they began to dispense with time-consuming ornamental work and began producing unadorned armor. If the wearer emerged the victor in battle, the armor came to be considered an armor of glory. If the wearer was defeated, the armor became one of sorrow and chagrin. In the middle of the 15th century, powerful regional warlords overthrew the regency government and the age of civil wars began. At the same time, the second phase of the history of Japanese armor began.

Blue-laced Domaru Gusoku Armor, 17th Century

There is an interesting story of this war period concerning a particular suit of armor. Takeda Shingen, one of the most powerful warlords of the 16th century, made an offering to his clan’s guardian God: a suit of armor said to be so strong that there was no need for a shield. The Takeda retainers took their oath of loyalty to their lord by swearing on this suit of armor and on the Takeda clan banner. Shingen, a man with the ambition of ruling Japan, had a series of battles with rival warlords, however he was taken ill and died in the midst of battle. Shingen’s son, Katsuyori, continued the fight but was defeated by an allied force of several warlord armies in 1575. Seven years later, the allied army pushed into Katsuyori’s encampment with a large force. Katsuyori, unable to stave off the invading army, set fire to his castle, then taking along the family treasure, his father’s armor that needs no shield, he led his force of little over 3,000 men to a rocky mountain named Tenmoku for a final, desperate battle. The warriors defending the mountain however saw that the Takeda cause was lost, and defected, refusing to allow Katsuyori into the castle. The retainers now began to defect one by one until by the time the group approached mount Tenmoku, which had been chosen for their last stand. Less than fifty people, including the women and children remained. Bandits with an eye on the reward being offered for Katsuyori’s head lay in wait along the way.

Surrounded by the enemy force, Katsuyori, realizing that the end was near, carried out the traditional family ritual, in which his sixteen year old son, Nobukatsu, donned the prized family armor. This was the Takeda clan’s most important ritual, in which the young heir was clad in the armor for his coming of age ceremony as a sign that he was the future head of the clan. Nobukatsu’s ceremony was a hurried one, carried out in the face of the impending annihilation of the clan. After the ritual, Katsuyori gave the armor to a trusted retainer, with the instruction that even if the Takeda clan should be destroyed, the armor was never to be handed over to the enemy. Soon afterwards, the entire army committed suicide. The Takeda suit of armor is an armor of tragedy; the armor of Toda Takatora, a valiant warrior of the age of civil wars, an armor of glory. Although there is no ornamental craftwork to be seen, the armor of this period shows the metal of the warrior during the age of civil wars, a time when ability and strength counted more than family rank.

Takeda Shingen Suit of Armor

With the end of this civil war period, Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged as the supreme victor and established the Shogunate government. With this, the history of armor as a practical battle necessity ended. Even in the Tokugawa era, armor continued to be made as a symbol of the samurai spirit, and was called Gosenzo-sama, or honorable ancestor. However armor, which had lost it’s practical value, failed to show any further development artistically, and with the fall of the warrior class it disappeared altogether.

The warriors of old had it out for battle, sometimes for self-preservation, sometimes for ambition, sometimes for honor and glory. Warriors heading for battle were constantly in the shadow of death. However the warrior could allow himself to show no fear. It was not death that mattered, but the disgrace of his family. The warrior, in spite of his fear of death, had to think of fear of death as a disgrace. During the long centuries of the age of the warrior, the era of wars, the Japanese created countless armors of glory and countless armors of tragedy. This was the inexorable fate of mankind, caught in a world of bloodshed. The armor was his death shroud; the iron sheet that was the boundary between life and death. No wonder the warrior ornamented his suit of armor with the highest attainable craftsmanship. Today, only a few examples exist. Armor changed in accordance with the manner of warfare. Some may be impressed by the elegant beauty and artistic sensitivity to be seen in the formal armor. Others may find beauty in the strong individualism revealed in the armor of the warriors of the age of civil wars, but in each suit of armor is the poignancy of man and his fate, and the samurai made it into a thing of beauty.

More Posts

Best Sellers