Menpo – Unmasking the Secrets of Ancient Japanese Facial Armour

Do you ever wonder how the Kabuto of Samurai warriors were created? How did the armorers come up with the design of these helmets?

There is plenty of rich information about Japanese armor, and the Kabuto is among the elements you should know about. An interesting part that works in conjunction with it is the Menpo. It is a facial armor piece concealing the lower-half part of the face.

For this reason, Samurai warriors often use these to protect their faces. Simultaneously, it provides the wearer more visibility and mobility, making it an essential part of their protective gear.

Back in Time – The History of Menpo

The Menpo, just like other segments of a Kabuto, is filled with interesting stories. The reason is that it dates back to the Heian period when it first functioned as a Samurai armor component.

This piece underwent multiple upgrades and changes to improve its design and functions. It also displays the growing needs of the Samurai during battles.

On art, the Happuri of these protective masks is depicted in Yamato-e paintings from the Heian and Kamakura periods. It is believed they appeared in the 10th or 11th centuries.

During the 14th century, statistics show that the Hoate started appearing ever since the occurrence of facial wounds started dropping.

However, some believed the piece was uncommon during that time since the Menpo restricted the user’s vision.

Additionally, the Hōate were portrayed in literature of the same period. Notably, these were seen in the Aki No Yo No Naka Monogatari scroll and the Taiheiki. 

The Menpo, with a removable nose piece and Soumen or full-face mask, appeared around the mid to late 15th century. Then, the Hanbou chin guard appeared in the second half of the 16th century.

Primary Functions and Role in Warfare

The Menpo has deep roots set in ancient Japan and evolved to adapt to the continuously-changing battle requirements. Since it functions as a shield for the face, the Menpo masks also work for intimidation on the battlefield.

The demons or animals on the Menpo were elaborately-crafted to scare and intimidate enemies during battle. These fierce and usually grotesque appearance projected by the piece was an interestingly smart psychological tactic to demoralize opponents.

Its design aimed to strike fear into the enemy and heighten the Samurai’s power.

Material Composition

Generally, a Menpo consists of iron, but it is still common to find one made from Nerikawa. It is a treated leather that stays solid and lightweight.

This face protector was integrated and introduced into the Samurai armor during the 14th century. Its surface could be decorated further with a leather, fur, or Rasha covering. They could also be fashioned with Sabiji, Sabiji and Yasurime, lacquer, iron cut-outs, or Maki-e.

Sabiji is an ideal finish since it optimizes the forged iron’s appearance. Plus, it concealed damages and other faults like fire ruins.

To embellish the aesthetics of the Menpo, different ears, nose, and facial hair styles were adopted as its motif. The latter was usually made from horse, bear, yak, or boar hair.

Additionally, the masks were treated with specific types of varnish, making them waterproof.

Appearance of the Menpo

These menpo guards were designed by skilled artisans to reflect the period’s charm, plus the personality and preferences of the wearer. Menpo were similar masks worn by the infantry and cavalry of Chinese troops during the Han to the Song Dynasties.

On their looks, these masks were often fashioned with various embossings and mustaches. Generally, these concealed all or parts of the wearer’s face while securing the Kabuto.

The helmet’s cord, or Shinobi no O, was tied beneath the chin of the Menpo. It was possible since the latter featured tiny hooks called the Ori Kugi or posts called the Odome.

You can find the latter in various spots to better secure the cord.

Moreover, these featured a lacquered/rusted finish and could have various facial details like detachable noses and fierce teeth.

The Different Types of the Menpo

Menpo is a term used to describe various kinds of facial armor equipped by the Samurai and their retainers. The primary types differ from the parts of the face they conceal.


These Menpo are usually worn from under the nose to the chin. They were crafted out of leather, wood, or metal and fashioned with distinct patterns of silver and gold.

The Hanbou is a chin guard that sometimes reaches the wearer’s cheeks. This type is the oldest model and is likely the piece that Samurai warriors genuinely used on the battlefield.

However, it was certain that warriors used these during wartime ceremonies and other important events. Aside from protection, this Menpo gave the user a flair of mystery, intrigue, and power.


Created during the Momoyama period and integrated into the Samurai general’s suit, this Menpo grew popular in the Edo period. It conceals the lower portion of the face, specifically under the eyes and nose.

What’s nice about it is the latter portion is entirely detachable.


These protective masks are distinct pieces worn by warriors during the Edo period. The Soumen feature intricate designs while fashioned with geometric patterns.

Unlike the earlier Menpo, this covers the entire face yet could be categorized into three sections. Why was it constructed this way? To be partially worn.

It was a usual piece used during parades and social occasions. However, it also helped Samurai warriors stay concealed while on horseback.


The oldest in the list since this Menpo dates back to the Heian period. It was a piece continuously used until the late Kamakura.

When the Samurai class ruled ancient Japan, they were known for their discipline, honor, and fierceness. To display their rank, many of these warriors wore expensive Menpo or headdresses made from pricey materials.

The Happuri concealed the wearer’s cheeks and forehead. It was considered the first upgrade towards face protective gear, which saved many warriors’ faces against arrow attacks.

This Menpo is crafted using cloth folded in half in an M shape. It is placed on the face so its folds meet at the center of the wearer’s forehead.


Various Styles of the Menpo

Today, Samurai masks are popular due to their fierce expressions and prominent mustaches. Its design guaranteed protection to the user, but it also aimed to impress and attract everyone who looked.

The early Menpo had simple and pragmatic themes. Only until the middle of the 16th century did people start seeing aesthetic developments linked to the Kawari helmet tradition. The latter is something common among the wealthy Samurai warriors.

Omitting the Hanbo, which usually does not reflect human expressions, the Menpo was often fashioned after Japanese Noh masks. It is a form of theater popular among the Samurai and Daimyo of the Sengoku period. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a Samurai and Daimyo, was a known actor who frequently performed for his troops.

There are differently-styled Menpo, and each of these has proper names that are usually interchanged by collectors and sellers. Some styles are common while others are rare but nevertheless, these add a distinct flair to the wearer.


This is the most popular and iconic layout because of its fierce-looking image showing an angry man with wrinkled cheeks. It even features a mustache/beard. This kind of Menpo appeared in Nara and is the only one used in the Momoyama period.


Another usual style of the Menpo is the Rybubou. It represents a man but with a more gentle expression than the Resseibou. These usually do not have mustaches and wrinkles; instead, has a smoother surface along the chin and cheeks.

So, the expression of this Menpo is more relaxed.


There is something more gentle than the Ryububou, and this is the Oiebou. It is usually hairless and has subtle tapering along its chin, and the highlight of this style is its bulbous nose. Additionally, it is another prevalent style for the Menpo.


This is probably one of the most known pieces created. It features a beak of a mythological creature with a bird’s head. It somewhat looks like the Karura Men that comes from the Buddhist tradition.

You can distinguish the latter from the mythological creature. How? The Karura Men does not display a separate mouth beneath its nose as the Tengu does.

The Menpo with a lengthy human nose represents the king of Tengu (Soujoubou or Tengu Men).

The variants of these pieces were called the Tobibou (black kite mask). It represents the Karasu Tengu or crow Tengu with a Garuda mask or pointed beak. The latter represents a man-bird deity from the Hindu-Buddhist myths.

The Less Common Styles

There are the less common styles of Menpo and one of them is the Bijobou, which displays more feminine characteristics. Another motif is the Emibou with a laughing face and the Ubahoho/Ubabou displaying the features of an old woman.

The latter has a counterpart, the Okinabou, showcasing an old man with a beard and long mustache. 

A fierce deity named Fudou Myou was also represented on these masks, which usually featured unmatching upper and lower teeth.

Different Parts of the Menpo

The Samurai mask consists of distinct segments that function specifically to safeguard different parts of the face. Understanding and knowing about these gives us a sneak peek into the uses of a Menpo.

It conceals the face beneath the wearer’s cheeks and is fitted with a removable Hana (nose) through pins/hinges. In addition, there is an opening for the mouth and a hole called the Ase Nagashi no Ana under the chin.

Generally, the Samurai wearing these had their ears covered with little holes for hearing. On other masks, its protection is extended to conceal the occiput (back & lower part of the skull). However, it is an extremely rare feature.

When tying the Kabuto no O (the helmet’s cords), these are wound tightly around the mask. It was commonly equipped with Odayori along the chin and the Orekugi at the cheeks.

For some Menpo, its Orikugi was replaced by a Tachi Yoke, a metal ring or narrow metal plate. This part was utilized to prevent incoming threats from assaulting the sides of one’s face.


It is a post to secure the chin strap of the Kabuto.


The Orikugi was a kind of attachment hook for securing the helmet’s chin strap.

Ase Nagashi no Ana

This section is a tube/drain hole for the wearer’s perspiration to flow. You can find it beneath the chin of various Menpo.

Yodare Kake

The throat guard is present on a few Menpo.

The Menpo in the Contemporary Era

The Menpo guards are among Japanese culture’s iconic and most recognizable aspects. Some of it can be seen in museums all around the world. Interestingly, these pieces are often used in manga and anime to depict the appearance or personality of a character.

These protective masks and Japanese armor are considered popular attractions among tourists visiting the country. Although they were originally protective pieces, wedding celebrants and other ceremonies wear the Menpo today.

Generally, these pieces come in different designs and are made from various materials. With that, many Samurai enthusiasts today collect and restore these.


The Menpo, or what we now call the Samurai mask, played a significant role in Japan’s history of warfare. It protected the warrior while fighting fiercely and intimidated their enemies with their distinct and intricate motifs.

For centuries, these warriors fought over land, power, and recognition across Japan on behalf of their Daimyo, Shogun, or emperor. During this time, these individuals developed the Bushido (Way of the Warrior), whose teachings are still seen in modern Japan.

Internationally, the image of a Samurai isn’t viewed as much through Bushido. However, they are symbolized more than any other warrior throughout history by the protective gear worn.

Generally, the Samurai’s protective armor is so uniquely crafted that stories about the warriors can be told in minute detail. The Japanese protective gear, including the Kabuto and Menpo, are pieces that give true insights into the country’s history.