The Evolution of Japanese Armour
An article by Boris Petrov Bedrosov, with illustrations by Jean Thibodeau
Samurai: A man of honor, walking his way with a sword in hand; a determined warrior, showing no fear and pain; a ruthless soldier, giving no quarter and not asking it. I think there is no other word that says so much with so few letters. Japanese edged and pole weapons are well known all over the world, but less is known about the protection these warriors wore. This article is dedicated to the history, construction and evolution of the samurai's main defensive equipment: his armour1.
Japanese armours could be classified by different indicators. For the purposes of this article we will classify them only by their construction and age2. But before we start our journey, it is necessary to make one very important note: No matter what you have seen or heard, Japanese armour never was made of wood (except in the case of some of the earliest cuirasses) or bamboo. The materials were leather and iron (steel in later periods), or a combination of both. Their colors, which give them their distinct appearance and make them look like they are made of wood, are the colors of the lacing cords and the lacquer that covers the leather and metal. Generally speaking, Japanese armour could be classified by their construction in three large groupsscale armours, lamellar armours and full-plate armours.
Classification by Construction
Scale armours (kozan-do) were formed from small steel (or, rarely, leather) trapezoidal or rectangular scales (plates), called kozane, laced together with leather strips or silk (cotton) cords, called odoshige3. This construction was the most widespread, although it was rarely used in some periods.
Lamellar armours were made by long and relatively narrow lamellae, laced or riveted together, forming one or another element of the armour. The earliest type of Japanese armours, called tanko, was of this construction. This type was almost forgotten, only to be reborn in the beginning of the 16th century.
Full plate armours were unknown in Japan prior to the first contact with Europeans (1543). But as we will see later, although they were strongly influenced by European cuirasses, full-plate armours were the next logical step in the evolution of the Japanese defenses.
Classification by Age
Japanese armour can be separated into another three groups according to their age: Ancient armours, Classical armours and Modern armours.
Ancient armours were those used up to the 10th century. Not many of them are preserved, but we know that both scale and lamellar constructions were used in this period. We also know that some of types of Ancient armours were influenced by continental Chinese and Korean counterparts.
Classical armours, predominantly of scale construction, were used from the 10th to the 15th centuries and are considered to be of Japanese invention. During this period Japanese armour gained their distinctive appearance and all parts of the armour appeared.
The group of Modern armours includes a huge variety used from the 16th to the 19th centuries. During the feudal wars in the 16th century many new types of armour appeared. Construction in this period was predominantly lamellar, but during the peaceful Edo period (1603-1868), some armourers returned to scale construction. Full-plate armours appeared in the middle of the 16th century and, despite their high price, quickly gained popularity.
Components of Japanese Armour
Although the full suit of armour (gusoku) consists of 23 or more elements, starting with the tie (fundoshi) and finishing with the pike mainstay (yari-ate), the basic elements (rokugu) are only six in number. These are the cuirass (do), the helmet (kabuto), the face mask (men yoroi or menpo), the armoured sleeves (kote), the greaves (suneate) and the cuisses (haidate). The seventh very important element, which was not part of the rokugu, but was a part of the cuirass, were the shoulder guards (sode).
The helmet (kabuto) and cuirass (do) are the oldest parts of the Japanese armour. Usually the kabuto is made of several plates, but during Heian period (794-1185) and after introduction of full-plate armours, Japanese armourers produced some excellent examples of single-plate helmets. The kabuto consists of two integral partsthe bowl (hachi) and the neck-guard (shikoro). Another element, the date, is attached to the hachi and has different functionsmythological, status symbol, decorative and even something like the warrior's "signature" or "ID card". The most widespread type of date was the horn or antler-like kuwagata.
The face mask (men yoroi), which literally means "face armour," was very popular but few samurai used it on the battlefield because they wanted their face to be visible to the enemy. Under the men yoroi a neck and throat armour (similar in functions to the European gorgets) was worn. It could have different construction and names (nodawa, eriwa and guruwa are three different types), and could be either separate from the men yoroi or be made as one element of the full suit (gusoku).
Up to the middle of the 12th century the armoured sleeves (kote) actually were only one sleeve, worn on the left arm to protect it from the bow-string. In the second part of the century sleeves for both arms began to appear and their functions and construction were changed in order to add protection against edge weapons. The gauntlets (tekko) could be separated from the kote, but usually they were attached to it, forming one element.
The greaves (suneate) protect the legs, but the earliest ones offered no protection for the knees. In the 12th century the first knee-guards, as integral parts of the suneate, appeared. The suneate were made from steel, lacquered leather or the Japanese brigandine (called kikko in the latest periods). Usually, the kote and the suneate were made as a pair in the same design. Even though the shapes of the plates might be different, the color, decoration and foundation fabrics were the same.
The cuisses (haidate) developed around the 13th century and were the last addition to Japanese armour. Their purpose was to protect the thighs, but, like the men yoroi, the haidate were rarely worn on the battlefield. The same foundation fabric was used in the haidate as in the kote and the suneate.
The earliest information about Japanese armour can be found in the ancient chronicles Kojiki and Nihongi, both written in the first quarter of the 8th century. More reliable information has been found in the archeological excavations of sites around graveyards (kofun), where full suits of armour and different weapons have been recovered. Pottery figures (haniwa), which often depict fully armed and equipped warriors, also reveal much about early Japanese armour.
The first iron armour appeared in the 4th century and was called tanko. This was for infantry combat and featured a distinctive lamellar construction. The cuirass (do) consisted of a metal frame and lamellae. At first, the lamellae were laced to each other and to the frame with leather strips. In later periods the lamellae were riveted.
The bell-like skirt (kusazuri), divided in two parts to improve walking, was attached to the bottom of the do. Its purpose was to protect the lower part of the body and thighs. The kusazuri was made from 10 or more lamellae, laced together with leather strips. Although many of the haniwa depict armours with kusazuri, few of them are preserved. It is possible that many of them were made from rawhide which has totally decomposed.
The shoulders and the upper parts of the arms were protected by the shoulder guards (kata-yoroi), made by curved, laced lamellae. They were tied up to the gorget (akabe-yoroi), which protected the neck and the upper parts of the chest and the back. The akabe-yoroi was put over the straps (watagami) rather under the cuirass as in Europe. The lower parts of the arms were protected by a pair of long, tube-like kote, each of which was comprised of two semi-cylindrical lamellae. For protection of the hands, scale gauntlets were attached to the kote.
The armour was fully covered with lacquer. The only decorations were the leather edgings of the main elements. Some armour, belonging to the high-ranking warriors, was gilt.
Note that the helmet in Figure 4 is a mabizashi-tsuki kabuto, which is more typical for keiko
Without any doubt, the introduction of the keiko (or kake-yoroi), was connected with the importation of horses from continental Asia around the end of the 4th century or beginning of the 5th century. The Japanese quickly discovered that Korean armour, with scale construction, was much better than Japanese lamellar armour for fighting on horseback. The first Japanese scale armour appeared approximately at the end of the 5th century and were different from Korean armour in that they took the shape of the tanko.
Because a cavalryman's legs are particularly vulnerable to attack, the Japanese started to use scale leg protection in the form of one conical section under the knee, another on top of the knee and a third section at the bottom part of the leg (on top of the foot). All the sections were tied at the back of the leg.
A new type of keiko appeared In the 8th century. It consisted of two (front and back) sections connected with the watagami, and was put on like a poncho. Another two sections were put on under the left and right arms. Each section had its own kusazuri, and was made of broad, rectangular scales
For some time the tanko was used together with the keiko, but in the 6th-7th centuries the scale armours gained popularity. Some interesting hybrids were created, too (for example, a tanko with a kusazuri of scale construction).
The helmet used with the tanko had developed to protrude over the forehead to protect the face. This part created the name of the helmetshokaku-tsuki kabuto (literally, "helmet of the stabbing ram"). The main element of the shokaku-tsuki kabuto was the curved lamella shokaku-bo, which ran from the front to the back of the head. It had a clearly defined central ridge, and two horizontal lamellae, running around the head, were riveted to it. These lamellae were the koshimaki (at the bottom of the helmet) and the do-maki (in the central part of the helmet). The space between the three lamellae was filled with small rectangular or triangular scales and riveted to them. Another semi-spherical lamella, called shokaku-tei ita, formed the front part of the bowl (hachi), filling the trianglular space between the warrior's forehead and the shokaku-bo. A decoration with trident-like shape, carrying three pheasant feathers was riveted on the top of the hachi.
Broad leather strips were laced through holes drilled at the sides and on the back of the koshimaki , and these secured between three and five U-shaped horizontal lamellae. The lamellae protected the neck and later were given the name shikoro. Each of the lamellae was laced so that it covered the bottom part of the one above and allowed upward movement.
Another helmet appeared with the introduction of the keiko. It was called mabizashi-tsuki kabuto in reference to its leaf-shaped, pierced visor (mobizashi). The helmet had a hemispherical shape and its construction was similar to the construction of the shokaku-tsuki kabuto. The koshimaki and do-maki were still in use, only now they made full circles around the head, over the scales, forming the bowl. The upper part of the helmet was closed with a rounded iron plate (fuse-ita), to which two cup-shaped decorations were riveted. Their function is not fully clear. Some authors suggest that the warrior's hair was placed in the bottom cup, but the fuse-ita is not drilled there. The other idea is that it was designed for a panache. The neck-guard (shikoro) had the same construction as in the shokaku-tsuki kabuto.
Yet another type of helmet was introduced in the latest keiko. It had the Chinese-Mongolian hemispherical/conical shape and was called moko-hachigyo. The bowl was formed by long rectangular scales and the upper part was closed with a hemispherical iron plate. The shikoro had a scale construction and for the first time the upper rows of scales were curved forward and upward at a right angle, forming the prototype of the fukigaeshi.
Many of the haniwa show other types of simpler helmets. It remains unclear why none of these types have been found, while many helmets rarely depicted on the haniwa have been found.
The family of Classical armour incorporates four basic types of scale armour. In contrast with the Ancient armours, influenced by continental forms and with Modern armours, some influenced by the Europeans, the Classical armour style is an original Japanese invention. The unique feature of the Classical armours is their construction. They are made from laced small rectangular or trapezoidal scales, the most widespread of which is called kozane. From it derives the Japanese name of the familykozan-do. Different types of such armour were the basic defensive equipment in Japan from the 10th to the 15th century.
Kozane and Kebiki-odoshi
The basic type of scale was called o-arame. It was made from leather or steel, and during the Heian period was as large as 5-7cm x 4 cm. The o-arame had a rectangular shape with slightly cut upper part, and 13 holes, punched in two rows. In order to prevent the "stretching" of the armour over time, the shikime-zane, with 19 holes in three rows, was used.
In the 13th century the size of the kozane decreased and it became more trapezoidal in form. The scales of this type were called hon kozane, and when laced overlapped each other by approximately half their width. Each gusoku required several thousands of scales. The sturdiness of the armour at the ends of the laced rows of hon kozane was improved with narrower scales with one row of holes only.
The iyo zane are easily recognized by their cut upper ends. The cut itself could have different shapes. The distance between the rows of holes was bigger and the iyo zane overlapped only at their ends. The result was fewer scales and thus faster construction. The mass of the armour was decreased but so were its protective capabilities.
Usually the upper left edge of scales was bent to facilitate lacing. Both firmness and flexibility were improved with another methodcurving all the scales. The most common were S- and C-curved kozane.
The colors of the cord varied widely, but the most common were red (aka), orange (hi), black (kuro), green (midori), white (shiro), yellow (ki), blue (hana) and violet (murasaki). Many combinations between them existed. In traditional Japanese manner, the color of lacing formed part of the full name of the particular armour.
The o-yoroi (or "great armour") appeared in the beginning of the 10th century. It was specially designed for mounted archery and for several centuries was considered to be the only armour suitable for the high-ranking warriors (bushi), who at that time were required to serve as cavalrymen and archers.
The most distinctive feature of the o-yoroi was its cross-section, which had the form of the Latin letter "C". A three-section cuirass fully protected the back, left and front parts of the body, and only the right part (where the letter "C" is opened) was protected with a separate section called the waidate. The waidate was put on first and was tied to the body with two silk cordsone at the level of the waist and the other diagonally across the chest and over the left shoulder. The straps (watagami) were strengthened with vertical, semi-rounded plates which protected the shoulders from vertical cutting strokes. The cuirass was closed with the traditional buttons (kohaze) attached to the watagami. These were made from hard wood, horn and sometimes ivory. A copper ring (agemaki-no-kan) was riveted in the middle of the back section. To it, the heavy silk braid, butterfly-like knot called agemaki was tied. Its main purpose was to be a fixing point for the o-sode.
The cuirass and many parts of the armour usually were covered with the printed leather called egawa. Its most visible element was the tsurubashiri (literally, "running bow-string")a "mantle" covering the whole front section of the do. This prevented the front row of scales from blocking and damaging the bow-string. Sometimes the tsurubashiri gives a false notion of a full-plate front section.
The armpits were protected with two movable sections attached to the shoulder straps. The section on the right was of scale construction and was called sendan-no-ita, while the section on the left, called kyubi-no-ita, was a full plate. Both were made of steel or, rarely, leather. The lower part of the body and the thighs were protected with four trapezoidal sections of kusazuri of scale construction, laced to the bottom parts of the cuirass and waidate.
The shoulders and the upper parts of the arms were protected with two big rectangular shoulder guards (o-sode). As the other elements of the armour, they were made of scales laced in six or seven rows, the top-most of which was riveted to the long plate (kamuri-no-ita). The o-sode acted like mobile shields, providing freedom of action for the arms in the same time.
At the beginning of this period retainers and servants usually wore simpler armour (do-maru), which appeared approximately in the same time with the o-yoroi or even earlier. This type is defined as armour of scale construction without hinges, which opens under the right arm. The name do-maru means "around the body" and refers to its other distinctive featurewhen worn the cuirass is wrapped around the body.
The five-section cuirass (do) fully protected the body. Its right- and left-most edges overlapped each other always under the right arm. When wrapped, the right edge of the cuirass was always under the left. The cuirass was secured with two cords, one at the level of the chest and the second around the waist.
The warriors who wore do-maru usually walked or ran near the horse of their lord. In order to give freedom to the legs and improve the ability to walk, the kusazuri was divided into seven or eight sections. The do-maru did not have the guards (sode). Instead, two small, leaf-like plates, called gyoyo, were laced to the watagami. They protected only the shoulders, and did not give any protection to the arms. The only decoration on the do-maru were the covers of the gyoyo of printed leather and, sometimes, chrysanthemum ornaments.
Later, in the 15th century, a new popular type of armour was derived from the do-maru. Samurai who had favoured do-maru now wore this improved variantcalled haramakiwhich better fit the body. According to the warrior's rank, the armour was more or less decorated. The plates (gyoyo) were moved, replacing the sendan-no-ita and kyubi-no-ita. Instead, classical o-sode were worn as shoulder guards. The knot (agemaki) was tied to the ring (agemaki-no-kan).
A hybrid armour called maru-do yoroi also existed. It had a multi-section kusazuri and was wrapped around the body like the do-maru, while the cover (tsurubashiri) on the front section of the cuirass, the plates (sendan-no-ita and kyubi-no-ita) and the shoulder guards (o-sode) were from o-yoroi.
Beginning in the 15th century, the constantly-increasing light infantry (ashigaru) was equipped with a new type of armour called haraate ("protection of the abdomen"). As its name indicates, this was simple armour to protect only the chest and abdomen of the warrior.
At this time the o-yoroi was still used by the high-ranking bushi, but already it was considered to be an anachronism. The samurai widely used a new cuirass called haramaki ("around the abdomen"). Unlike the do-maru, the haramaki was open on the back. There was no place for the knot (agemaki) and some problems with attaching the sode appeared. In order to solve them one narrow plate, called se-ita, was added. The se-ita was attached to the cuirass with buttons (kohaze) and tied around the waist. It provided protection to the back and often was called "coward's plate," because in traditional belief the samurai should never turn his back to the enemy. The kusazuri was multi-section, as in the do-maru. In addition, another narrow section was laced to the se-ita.
Kusari, Japanese mail, appeared in the 14th century. It differed from European mail in both construction and use.
Kusari almost never existed alone. Rather, it was used to fill all the gaps between the scales on the kote and suneate, or to connect them. Usually, it was sewn to the foundation fabrics or leather, or placed between two layers. Only in few cases was the kusari used as a basic protectionsuch as the secondary areas of the armour or as a shikoro in some mass-produced helmets6, etc.
The construction of the kusari was like with no other, except possibly the Etruscan form. It consisted of two types of rings: Round, parallel to the foundation fabrics (or leather) and oval, which were perpendicular to them. The round rings were made from thin wire (diameter was about 1.40-1.50 mm) with an inner diameter of about 3.00-3.50 mm. The oval rings were even smaller7. The rings were simply butted close rather than riveted.
Many types of kusari existed and almost all of them had another name. Probably, the most basic type was the kagomegata-gusari (also called so-gusari). In this type, each round ring was connected with four others. If two or three oval rings connected each couple of round ones, the mail was named kame-ko-gusari or seiro-gusari. In the hexagonal mail called fusa-gusari, each round ring was connected with six others. Places which needed high mobility and relatively low protection were covered with mail of lighter construction called futae- and koshi-gusari, kaushi- and hana-gusari, etc.
The helmet used in the beginning of the period was a hybrid, something between the ancient shokaku-tsuki kabuto and mabizashi-tsuki kabuto. It became the foundation on which all specific features of the Japanese helmets were formed.
The helmet consisted of 8-12 rectangular scales, which formed the bowl (hachi). Each scale was oriented vertically and riveted to its neighbors with six rivets with large, domed heads called hoshi ("star"). These gave the helmet its name helmethoshi kabuto, or "star helmet".The base of the lamella (koshimaki) was riveted, while on the top there was a large round hole (tehen). Originally, the tehen had only a mythological meaningit was believed to facilitate inspiration by Hatimana, the Japanese god of war. The tehen was edged with the curved iron plate (aoiba-za), but was eventually replaced by the elegant gilt tehen-kanamono.
The visor (mabizashi) and the neck-guard (shikoro) were riveted to the koshimaki. The almost-vertical mabizashi usually was covered with printed leather or was engraved. The shikoro was of conical form and comprised of five rows of trapezoidal scales (kozane). The four top-most rows were curved at a right angle, forming the fukigaeshi. which protected the face from arrows and sword-strokes from the sides and back. They also prevented damage to the lacing and, by extension, injury to the shoulders. The fukigaeshi was covered with printed leather and decorated with chrysanthemum ornaments.
At the middle of the back-most scale of the hachi the rivetted gilt ring (kasazuri-no-kan) served as an anchor for the silk braid knot (agemakinot to be confused with the agemaki at the back of the cuirass). In battle, the identification flag (kasa-jirushi) also was tied to the ring.
In the second half of the 12th century the date decoration appeared. Its most widespread variant was the horn-like kuwagata, and its meaning is not quite clear. Some authors suggest that the horns symbolize devil's horns, while others insist that they depict cow horns. Whatever its meaning, the kuwagata quickly became a standard feature.
At the end of the same century the helmet developed a more hemispherical shape, the number of plates increased to 12 to 28, with six rivets each. Most importantly during this period, the ribs (suji) appeared. The suji were comprised of a narrow edge of each scale, curved perpendicularly. These significantly strengthened the helmet without adding mass. The lining (ukebari) inside the bowl was introduced in the 13th century.
Both face armour (men yoro) and gorget (nodawa) appeared approximately in the 11th century. They gained popularity and were standard features by the late14th /early 15th centuries. Despite the huge variety, all face armours could be separated in five groups:
Kote, Suneate and Haidate
The first armoured sleeves (kote) protected only the left arm from the bow-string. They were simple fabric sleeves with several plates sewed in the areas of the forearm and elbow, and a D-shape gauntlet (tekko) for the hand. In the second part of the 12th century a sleeve for the right arm was added and the construction was changed in order to protect the arms against edged weapons. The earliest kote did not incorporate mail but after the beginning of the 13th century it was commonly used in the gaps between the plates.
A typical kote during the first part of the period was the yoshitsune gote, named for the Japanese hero Minamoto-no Yoshitsune, who, according to legend, wore kote of this type. They had a single plate on the forearm, another single plate on the upper arm, a disk (hiji-gane) protecting the elbow and a D-shaped tekko. Another widespread type, especially after the 13th century was the tsutsu gote ("tube" or "pipe" kote), with three big plates in the area of the forearm sewn onto the fabric or connected with hinges, little rectangular plates and mail on the upper arm and the hiji-gane and the o-shino gote with several long narrow plates in the area of the forearm, the same plates on the upper arm and the hiji-gane, all of them connected with mail (and sometimes sewn onto on the fabric).
Greaves (suneate) were not used until the beginning of the 12th century. The first suneate consisted of three leather or metal plates, laced together. They had no protection for the knees. When worn, the greaves were closed with two simple cotton cords. In the 14th century a protection for the knees was added. Usually, it was made in the same way as the Japanese brigandine (kikko).
In the beginning of the 15th C. new types of suneate appeared. The most widespread were the tsutsu suneatethree big plates, connected with hinges or laced and the lighter shino suneate. The shino suneate were made from long narrow plates (shino), which were sewn to the foundation fabric and connected with mail. Both types had inner layers of soft fabric or leather, which protected the legs from the metal. The ashigaru in wartime and the samurai in peacetime usually wore greaves made only of kusari, sewn to the foundation fabric. Sometimes these covered the entire legs, but had the disadvantage of mailpoor protection against edged weapons.
Different types of haidate existed, but after the 14th century the most popular became the iyo haidate, made of scales (iyo zane), laced with kebiki odoshi in opposing directions, which provided overlapping of each scale with its neighbors and etchu haidatea cuisse of small rectangular plates, connected with a kusari.
From 1467 to 1603, the Sengoku Jidai (Period of the Warring States or Age of the Hostile Provinces), Japan was involved in a seemingly endless feudal war. The constant battles and growing armies needed more and more men, and the role and the number of light infantry (ashigaru) increased dramatically. Almost every man capable of military service, whether wanderer, bandit or peasant, was needed.
The need for weapons and armour increased also, and the long military campaigns of the period revealed the disadvantages of scale armour. When wet, it became very heavy and dried only slowly. It was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. It was impossible to keep the armour clean on campaign and it eventually started to smell bad. Ants, fleas and lice settled in. The complicated lacing (kebiki-odoshi) was easily damaged by edged weapons, but the repair was difficult and prolonged.
Due to all these factors, in the beginning of the 16th century the Classical armours were replaced by tosei-gusoku ("Modern armours") of lamellar construction. These exhibited enormous variety but their common feature was minimal use or total absence of lacing (as in the riveted and full-plate cuirasses). The Modern armours offered better protection against firearms, introduced to Japan in 1543 and first used in battle in 1549. Unlike Classical armours, the weight of the Modern armour rested on the thighs rather than the shoulders and was more comfortable for long campaigns. Also, Modern armours required fewer materials and less time in construction.
Of course, the transformation to Modern armours took a long time and many transitional types existed. The samurai of the old clans still used the haramaki and do-maru, showing their high and ancient descent, and some of the ashigaru wore the old haraate too.
I will describe the basic types of the tosei-gusoku only. Many others, together with short descriptions, will be presented farther below.
Decreasing the lacing was the first step in solving the problems described above. In the second half of the 15th century the kebiki-odoshi was replaced with the very simple sugake-odoshi. In it, the lacing cord ran down from the top to the bottom of the whole section and back, forming straight pairs and X-crossings. As you recall, in the kebiki-odoshi the lacing (kedate) which connected the rows of scales ran only between each neighboring couple of rows. From all elements of the kebiki-odoshi only the right- and left-most lacing mimi-ito remained.
The second important step was the returning to the lamellar construction and partial or complete rejection of scale construction, which remained only in some sections of a few types of armour. A transitional variant of scale construction existed also. In it, the rows of scales were laced with sugake-odoshi and all unused holes were covered with lacquer All these measures allowed the armourers to decrease the required materials by approximately two times and the time required by approximately four times.
The earlier variants of the mogami-do gusoku, which appeared in the late 15th/early 16th centuries were considered to be transitional types of armour. They were produced either as a do-maru (opened under the right arm), or as a haramaki (opened at the back). Later in the period a new variant, which was a "real" tosei gusoku also was created. The mogami-do was made of broad lamellae and laced with sugake-odoshi. The skirt (kusazuri or gessan), neck-guard (shikoro) and shoulder guards (sode) were laced in the same way.
The maru-do was a modern variant of the do-maru and usually was the armour of high-ranking warriors. It was opened under the right arm like Classical armour but was of lamellar construction. To make it look like the do-maru, maru-do was laced with kebiki-odoshi instead of sugake-odoshi. The other method used by the armourers to achieve this effect was to shape the lamellae like the scales (kozane). Such lamellae were called kiritsuke-kozane if they imitated kozane or kiritsuke-iyozane if they imitated iyo zane.
Strictly speaking, the ni-mai-do was not a particular type of armour but was a term for a group of armours of different construction. The name means "cuirass of two sections" and directly refers to their common feature. The ni-mai-do gusoku united all armours with cuirasses of clamshell construction, which opened under the right arm and had a single hinge under the left. So "clamshell armours" is the other name of the whole group. The most popular types were the later variant of the mogami-do, called mogami ni-mai-do8, the okegawa-do and the nuinobe-do.
The armours had different kusazuri and sode, which matched to the type of the particular cuirass.
Around 1550 a new type of armour appeared, and soon became extremely widespread due to all its advantages. This was the okegawa-do or the armour of riveted lamellae. The name means "tube-sided," because the cuirass had a tube-like shape and construction.
Two basic variants existed: the tatehagi (vertical) and yokohagi (horizontal) okegawa-do. Usually, the cuirass was made as a ni-mai-do type with a hinge under the left arm, and the most common type was the yokohagi okegawa ni-mai-do.
Despite the riveted cuirass, the kusazuri and sode were always made of lamellae, laced with sugake- or kebiki-odoshi and lacquered with the same lacquer as the cuirass.
In the beginning, the okegawa-do gusoku was the armour of the retainers and ashigaru but it quickly gained popularity among the samurai. It was cheap to produce, easy to maintain, comfortable to use and, if properly made, quite reliable in battle. Of course, many mass produced, low-quality okegawa-do existed. Often they were called okashi do or "munition-grade" armours.
The namban-do gusoku or "armour of the south barbarians" was one of the results of contact with Europeans. Japanese armourers quickly learned how to produce local copies of European plate armour, and starting around 1560 the namban-do "Made in Japan" appeared. Although the quality varied widely, these always were associated with the high-ranking samurai. All of them had a two section-construction consisting of a back and ridged breast, each made from a single steel plate.
To equip the growing armies armourers were to create new, simpler forms of helmets. For this reason, if in the beginning of the period the 24-plate suji-bachi kabuto was a standard, just a few decades later the typical low-ranking samurai's helmet had only six, eight, twelve or sixteen plates and usually had simple date. Another popular helmet was the zunari-kabuto ("helmet with head shape").
This was made of a broad central plate to which the koshimaki and visor were riveted. Another two broad plates formed the bowl (hachi). The shikoro was from three to five U-shape lamellae, laced with simple sugake-odoshi.
Some helmets were made to fold or collapse. Two interesting types of these are the tatami-kabuto with its rectangular steel plates sewn on a foundation fabric with gaps filled with the mail kusari, and the chochin-kabuto made of steel plate rings laced with sugake-odoshi which could be fixed in place with a spring.
At the beginning of the 16th century the old kote were modernized and new types appeared. The general purpose was to improve the protection of the arms and hands by adding more mail and steel plates. The most popular of them were the oda-gote, shino-gote (actually a "modern" version of the classical o-shino-gote) and bishamon-gote. The old tsutsu-gote was used also. All had gauntlets (tekko), curved in the shapes of the palms and fingers beneath them. Some kote had sode integrated with them. Sometimes the armoured sleeves were sewn together, forming something like a short vest. Usually, the vest was protected with the brigandine kikko, adding more protection. Kote like this was called ai-gote.
The greaves (suneate) were still the old tsutsu- and shino-suneate, and only one new type was added. It was called ettyu-suneate and was similar to the shino-suneate but lacked the fabric padding and knee-guards. This type usually was worn in humid weather.
Other types of the tosei-gusoku
Many other types of tosei-gusoku existed. The go-mai-do and roku-mai-do gusoku were armours of clamshell costruction, similar to the ni-mai-do. The first had five-section cuirasses (front, back, left and two overlapping right ones) and four hinges, while the second had six-sections (front, back, two overlapping left and another two overlapping right ones), again with four hinges.
The dangae-do ("step-changing") was a combination of two or more types of armours. The top part of the cuirass is yokohagi okegawa ni-mai-do (horizontally-riveted, two-section clamshell cuirass), while the bottom part is of lamellae laced with kebiki-odoshi.
The kikko-do is an armour, entirely made of the hexagonal Japanese brigandine (kikko). Although it was never widespread, its construction is quite interesting.
The yukinoshita-do is the only Japanese armour named after an armourer. Generally, it was a variant of the tatehagi okegawa go-mai-do (vertically-riveted, five-section clamshell cuirass) with front and back section and made of a single steel plate. Armour of this type were considered to be high-quality.
The hotoke- and nio-do represented the traditional Japanese Buddhist beliefs. The first armour had a smooth appearance, without visible lames and rivets, while the second had an appearance of a starving old man or Buddhist monk.
Clothes, Equipment, and Accessories
Little is known about the clothing of the ancient Japanese. According to the Chinese chronicles, the men wore a sort of wrapper sewn in several places and a fabric tie around the head. Tattoos were widespread not only as a decoration but as status symbols. Much information can be gathered from the haniwa of later periods. According to them, two types of clothes existedunderwear (a shirt and pants) and outerwear (the coat with long sleeves, kinu, and the trousers, hakama). In the 7th and 8th centuries Japanese clothing was strongly influenced by its Chinese counterparts. Despite this, during this time the kimono formed its traditional shapes. At the beginning of the 10th century another traditional Japanese suitthe sokutaialso appeared.
With Classical armours the samurai usually wore the suit (kamishimo), which consisted of the jacket (kataginu) and the trousers (hakama). The family crest (mon) was depicted on the kataginu in five placesthe back between the shoulders, the chest at left and right and on both sleeves. Under the kamishimo a kimono was worn. A suit, called yoroi-hitatare, was worn under the armour. It was made from cotton and usually in bright colors always different from the foundation fabrics of the kote. The belt (obi) was wrapped around the body on the yoroi-hitatare, and the second belt (uwa-obi) was wrapped around the cuirass. On the feet the slippers (tabi) and leather boots were worn. Later in the period, the boots were replaced with sandals (warazi). Many of the poor ashigaru often fought barefoot.
In the later periods the kamishimo was still used, but the sleeves of the kimono were shortened. Starting in the 15th or 16th century the samurai of high descent wore over the armour a sleeveless jacket called jimbaori. This usually was worn in camps, after battles, during visits and military councils, etc.
The suit of armour was kept and transported in sacks made of soft fabric. The sacks themselves were put in a special armour chest. Up to the 15th century the chestkara-bitsu or "Chinese box" was a big wooden box with six legs. When exhibited, the armour looked like the armoured warrior sitting on the chest. The o-yoroi usually was exhibited without its small elements (ko-gu, suneate, haidate, kote and men yoroi, and sometimes o-sode).
Instead of the big and heavy armour chest (kiri-bitsu), the smaller and lighter gusoku-bitsu was sometimes used. It was made of wood, covered with leather and lacquered. The height of the box was approximately 0.75 m. and the width 0.60 by 0.60 m. The corners were strengthened with iron or bronze brackets. In many cases the lord's mon was depicted on its surface. Two rope handles were attached at the sides. The gusoku-bitsu was carried on a wooden staff by two servants. The poorer warriors usually carried their chests on their backs. In this case the rope handles were replaced with two leather shoulder straps.
Believe or not, there was an official way of putting on the armour. It varied in different clans, and many of the details were considered to be secret, but generally it was consistent. The general principle was to arm oneself from the bottom up, and from the left to right. The specific order was as follows:
On July 8, 1853, a US Navy squadron under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry entered the Bay of Uraga, south of Tokyo. Samurai, wearing medieval armour and armed with swords and harquebus, were no match for the modern firearms and naval artillery. Japan was opened. In 1868 the last shogun renounced the power and the Meiji Revolution began. The Japanese adopted modern weapons and, after centuries in use, abandoned their traditional arms.
Comparing European arms and armours with their Japanese counterparts, we could point to many differences. The general conclusion we could make is that the Eastern weapons and armours were lighter than the Western due to the rather different type of combat environment. In the West, armour was evolving toward full protection and the result was the heavier full-plate armour. Weapons developed in parallel, seeking to pierce or crush plate rather than cut it. This problem never existed in Japan so relatively heavy weapons such as halberds, maces, hammers, etc. were unknown. Nor was there a Japanese equivalent of the European cavalry charge with lances. These observations are not meant to suggest that Japanese arms and armours were better than the European or vice versa. It merely suggests that always and everywhere weapons develop in close relation to defensive equipment and tactics. As such, through centuries of evolution, proof and improvement on the battlefield, Japanese armours served each purpose for which they were created.
About the Author
Boris Bedrosov was born in 1974 and now serves as an officer on active duty in the Bulgarian Army. He has had a general interest in weapons, martial arts, and military history since the beginning of the 1990s. His focus on Japanese arms and armour came about the very end of the same decade.
All illustrations contained within this article were created by Jean Thibodeau.
1. The shield (te-date) was used as defensive equipment up to the 5th century AD. With the growth of the ken (the ancestor of the tachi and katana) to two-hand size and use of the longbow (yumi) by the cavalry (bushi), the te-date became just a useless burden for the warrior. After that the shield was very widely used in a fortification role (called "tate").
2. Other indicators could be the size and forms of the scales and lamellae, the type and color of the lacing (odoshi), etc.
3. Do not worry if you cannot remember all of the Japanese words used in the article while reading the text for the first time.
4. Strictly speaking, the type and the style of Japanese armours are two different things. The type refers to the "architecture" of the armour (number of sections, opening, clamshell construction, etc.), while the style refers to the lacing, riveting, scales, lamellae, etc. For the purposes of this article I will use only the word "type".
5. The Japanese literally gave a name to each detail of the armour. I will try to minimize the use of the Japanese terms but this is impossible in many cases.
6. There is an example of helmet with shikoro like that in Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai"
7. Could you imagine my surprise when I saw for the first time a Japanese armour in the Museum of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria? One of the things which surprised me most was the kusari on the kote.
8. The red armour worn by Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai" is exactly of this type
Arms and Armor of the Samurai, by Ian Bottomley
Early Samurai: 200-1500 AD (Elite Series, Vol. 35), by Anthony J. Bryant
The Samurai Armoury, by Nosov K.
The Samurai: A Military History, by Stephe Turnbull
Secrets of the Samurai: A Survey of the Martial Arts of Feudal Japan, by Oscar Ratti, Adele Westbrook
Sengoku Daimyo, by Anthony J. Bryant