Here we are going to talk about the Samurai battle suit or armor. What was it like? Is it heavy? Why do some helmets have horns? Or did it mean something else?
When we think about Samurai history, the Katana sword always comes to mind. Before you’ve seen a movie or two, could you honestly picture how a Samurai would look like?
What is the Battle Suit or Samurai Armor?
First, let’s learn the basics of an armor. In this case, the Samurai armor. They call the suit Gusoku meaning it’s “one set”. In general, a suit has first the helmet or Kabuto. Then sometimes together with it is the facial armor or Mengu. To some, it is Menpo.
Next, would be for the torso, the cuirass or Do. Which sometimes comes with a shoulder guard or Sode. Lastly, the Sangu meaning a “set of three”. It pertains to the three items that protect the limbs. One is Kote or the armed sleeves. The protection for the thighs called Haidate and the shin guards called Suneate.
As stated above, not all battle suit must have each piece. Many don’t often wear the Sode, and only a Samurai official uses the Mengu. A Mengu’s function is not primarily to protect the face but instead to instill fear to the enemy. No wonder a lot of the Mengu designs are ugly or creepy.
All these collectively are made by Japanese armor makers or Katchu-shi. Now in making a Gusoku, there isn’t just one particular person creating it. A group or family of Katchu-shi makes one entire set. Each of them has specific tasks and role in perfecting a piece or two of the set. Most often, it takes about one year to complete a Gusoku.
Some History of the Battle Suit
Some of the oldest Japanese armor known came from excavated ancient tombs. These Asian tombs found between China and Korea had soldier clay models. Together with them were some sort of armors. It was during the Medieval times that the armors came with a design. It is what most of us know now. The plated chest and skirt. Plus the horned helmets and intricately made shin guards.
The Medieval time was when they started swords and bows. As they began to use armors, the detail and protection you get depend on your status. Foot soldiers would usually have a one-piece type of garment. It offers no extra protection like the generals. The spear is also their limited weapon. No swords, no bows at all.
Over time, the Samurai armor develops and adjusts according to the need in war. When firearms came, this began the Gusoko of full-set armors. They design them to take the impact of the musket guns. They develop them to protect the whole body.
Types of the Japanese Armors
Before we start with detailed history, let’s know the basic types of the armors first. This type is according to how the armor construction. The materials may be the same, but the construction technique is different.
Scale armors are among the first in Japan. They construct them from small, thin plates of iron, bronze or brass. Some use bones for plates, too. They laced together with leathers or wire. After that, they sew it into a cloth or leather. In China, they laced it with silk.
Lamellar armors construct from small rectangular plates or lamellae. It could be made out of iron, rawhide or bronze. They adjoin each plate by leather strings or rivet them together. It was one among the first design that came back during the 16th century.
The lamellar armor construction was stronger because they laced each lamellae overlapping each other. This adds extra protection from a sword passing through the gaps. There is also no need to attach it to a backing material. Lastly, each lamella gets lined up vertically and horizontally. This allows the wearer free to move.
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The Ancient Japanese Armors
So before the well-designed armors came about, there were simple yet reliable ones. These Japanese armors date back before the 5th century. No documents were left, but ancient artifacts tell the story. Haniwa or the pottery figures found in excavation sites depict full suits of armor.
Some found the oldest cuirasses to be made of rawhide or hardwood. They were laced with leather strips and dyed with red or black lacquer. They believed this date backs to the 2nd century.
Tanko is the first iron armor. It appeared in the 4th century. They mostly make them of horizontal iron plates. It had a helmet, a cuirass or Do, and a neck armor or arm sleeves. They construct the Do from metal frames and lamellae. Most of the adjoining parts were with leather strips. Later, they rivet the lamellae instead.
They covered Tanko armors with lacquer. The Tanko suit was strong. It had a solid iron frame like a skeleton that gives firm support. Despite that, though, it would have been cumbersome.
The most popular Haniwa excavated was wearing a Keiko armor. Keiko armor was designed for horsemen. They believe that the idea came from China by way of Korea. It was during the time that they were importing horses around Asia.
Keiko armor was made of plain steel or copper. The same with Tanko, they connect them with leather braids. The designs were very much the same as the Tanko, too. Since horsemen’s legs were more exposed, they added extra support for it.
So the full body armor has now begun to emerge. By the 7th century, scale armors are popular, and the Tanko became extinct.
Early Forms of the Samurai Suit
Kozane and Kebiki-odoshi are the first things we should understand before moving on with the next armor suit. As the armor suits developed and changed. The methodology, materials, and construction also did. Kozane pertains to the individual scales used. Most Kozane are made of pressed rawhide or iron and steel. Kebiki-odoshi is the process of connecting each scale.
By the 10th century, O-yoroi armors came next after the Keiko. It was specially designed for horsemen. At that time high-rank Samurai were cavalrymen and archers. It features a “C section” that encase the torso, the left side and the back. A different plate protects the right side. The whole cuirass extends to the waist and looks like a skirt. This protects up to the thighs. This portion is the Kusazuri.
First, the right side plate or Waidate is put on. Next, they put on the Do. The straps of the Do or Watagami are made of sturdy semi-rounded plates. This is to protect the Samurai from any vertical cut. They close the Do with Kohaze or buttons attached to the Watagami. The Kohaze are either ivory, hardwood or from a horn. They rivet a copper ring at the back to tie a silk braid to it. This is for the Sode to connect to.
The cuirass or Do is an essential part of an armor. A Tsurubashiri looks like a mantle covering the front section of the Do. It is there to prevent damaging the bow-string as the archers pull their bow. The armpits are covered with a movable part attached to the Sode. The Sode serves as a shield, so they connect them with a complicated system of silk and leather cords.
If the high-rank Samurai have the O-yoroi, the retainers have the Do-maru. Do-maru means around the body. They wear this cuirass around the torso. The right and left-most edges meet towards the right side of the body. Then two cords secure the Do. This particular armor does not have Sode. Instead, there are two small plates called Gyoyo which they lace to the Watagami.
By the 13th century, the Do-maru and O-yoroi designs were combined, improved or changed. When some Samurai favored the Do-maru, they developed it and became Haramaki. The decoration tells you how high or low the Samurai’s rank is.
The Sode replaces the Gyoyo, and soon they improved the other parts, too. Later they invented a hybrid called Maru-do Yoroi. It had a Do-maru with a multi-section Kusazuri. But the front of the Do and the shoulder guards were from O-yoroi.
Soon, in the 15th century, they introduced Haraate. Haraate means protection of the abdomen. Thus, this Do includes protecting the stomach area. Together with it, they created a new shoulder guard, too. Later as the armors change, they name them according to the size and number of Kozane used.
The Modern Armor Suits
Tosei Gusoku came around the early 16th century. They make these suits from iron plates or Ita-mono. Due to new weapons like firearms, the use of Kozane had to change. It offered better protection from the kind of warfare they face at that time. Compared from the classical armors, the weight of Tosei Gusoku is on the thighs not on the shoulders. Also, they are made of fewer materials and made in a shorter period.
The change of material also means the modification of the lacing technique. Modern suits now used Sugake-odoshi style lacing. This technique decreases the number of elements and lessens the amount of time. The materials reduce more or less by 50% and the time decreased to almost 25%.
Mogami-do Gusoku was among the original style. They either patterned it from a Do-maru or Haramaki but laced by Sugake-odoshi style.
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Madu-do Gusoku was a modern style of Do-maru for high-rank officials. It used lamellar construction. This style opens under the right arm. It also uses the old lacing kebiki-odoshi, but the scales are Kozane.
Steel suits became common by 1540s. Tetsu or iron sets are becoming popular. This changed the way they make the armors. It resulted in many changes, designs thus many types of suits.
In 1550, a new type of armor appeared. Okegawa-do Gusoku became famous because of its advantages. It is an armor of riveted lamellae. Okegawa means tube-sided because the Do looked like a tube. It was cheaper than other armor suits, and it was comfortable to use. For many, it became useful in the battlefield.
When the Samurai met the Europeans, the Namban-do Gusoku came to life. The suit name means armor of the southern barbarians. It has the classic European plate armor instead of the traditional Do. Although the other parts of the armor are still the same, the front and back portions of the Do were made of single steel plates.
There are more to discover from the Samurai battle suit. Each family, each era and every official always made changes to their designs. The Kabuto has always been a signature part of the armor. In many occasions, the Kabuto is so vital that it distinguishes the person. Each era also had different designs and meanings for them.
The Menpo or Mengu are distinct, too. Many wore one for protection; others wore them to instill fear. Most famous of them are the long beard or hair they put under the nose. You will see this depicted in movies and anime.
Others came up with a combination of two or more armor types. The Dangae-do was a type of Tosei Gusoku that had two or more combination. There are others with a unique design. The Kikko-do was one of them. It was entirely made of brigandine but never became widespread. There are more Tosei Gusoku as much as there are Katchu-shi. Some Katchu-shi innovates while some stick with the old ones.
The Armor Suits Today
Now, all existing armors are on display. You will find authentic ones in different museums. Others are replicas for fun and movie production. Some are part of a collection. While some are part of some studies.
The history of Japanese Samurai is always intriguing. When the Samurai lost their class and had to give up their swords, the armor became a status indicator. Soon, many of them decorated their armors just for show. There were no more battles to fight for. So they spend time creating designs or improving what they have.
Some families preserved the armors. Others were smuggled out when Westerners or Europeans were buying them as souvenirs. Of course, the armor makers declined and soon became extinct. There are no more reasons to build one.