The samurai are some of the most recognizable fighters in world history. Part of what makes them so distinct is their unique armor. Samurai are often compared to the knights of medieval Europe. While both groups did wear armor, the uniform of the samurai proved much different in both its form and function from that of the European knight.
Samurai armor, or gusoku, was unique to each warrior and the clan to which he belonged. A few distinguished schools of armory rose to great popularity during the height of samurai power and conflict in Japan.
These armorers determined the style of armor their samurai clients would wear to battle. While large pieces of armor remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years, other elements of the samurai uniform evolved as methods of warfare changed.
Certain elements of samurai armor were also added and subtracted over the course of history depending on the needs of the samurai.
The following is an overview of samurai armor and the experts who crafted it. This includes a brief discussion of the different components that made up an average suit of samurai armor.
We then take a look at some complete suits of armor and components of the samurai uniform on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Special emphasis is given to the armorers who made them.
1) Kabuto (helmet)
Perhaps the most iconic part of a samurai’s armor is his helmet. Like other elements of a samurai’s uniform, the kabuto evolved over time. In early centuries, samurai helmets were crafted from leather. As weaponry and the style of battle changed over time, armorers began crafting kabuto from iron and other metals.
Leather was still incorporated into the designs of kabuto as padding and neck guards.
Samurai helmets featured crests of the samurai’s clan. Many also included other symbolic design elements that were usually influenced by nature.
High ranking samurai officials often wore kawari-kabuto, which translates to an “exotic helmet” or “extraordinary helmet.” This sculptural headwear made samurai leaders instantly recognizable in the chaos of battle.
The helmets would have been worn in battle and other special ceremonies and events. Samurai wearing kawari-kabuto displayed not only their wealth and status, but also their artistic tastes.
Most kawari-kabuto designs were inspired by nature and featured animals, plants, and other elements of the natural world. The helmet pictured above is a grand example of the artistry and creativity of the samurai’s exotic helmet.
2) Half & Full Masks (mempo/somen)
In the early days of the samurai, a mempo was a simple leather chin strap that helped hold the kabuto in place. As samurai fighting became more sophisticated and clans battled for power, the mempo evolved into the decorative and functional half mask.
The half mask covered the lower half of a samurai’s face and protected his face and neck from arrows and swords. It also attached to the samurai’s helmet and helped it stay on during battle. The carved iron masks also intimidated the enemy.
Exaggerated nose and chin details such as the ones pictured above hid the true identity of a samurai fighter and transformed him into a menacing character.
While less common than the half mask, some samurai armorers also crafted full masks called somen. These masks could be truly terrifying on the battlefield. Made from iron and protected by a coat of lacquer, somen brought popular characters from myths and legends to life.
Full face masks provided complete face protection and were even more intimidating than half masks. Most somen date to the peaceful Edo period, however, as armorers had more time to experiment with new and more intricate designs.
3) Dou (torso armor)
The main portion of samurai armor was flexible yet durable torso armor, or dou. Unlike knights of the European medieval and renaissance periods, who wore heavy, bulky, and restrictive armor, Japanese craftsman prioritized movement.
While samurai armor was designed for mobility, this did not mean dou was not protective. Early samurai armorers crafted dou from tough leather. As firearms developed, stronger materials became necessary.
Torso armor from the Kamakura to Edo periods was assembled using iron plates or scales, leather, and other soft materials.
To further strengthen and weatherproof dou, armorers finished each piece with lacquer.
4) Kusazari (leg guards)
Samurai leg armor, or kusazari, protected a samurai’s upper and lower legs in different ways. Kusazari was made like a skirt with panels on the front, sides, and back of the samurai.
These panels protected a samurai’s thighs, especially while fighting on horseback. The lower legs were covered by a tighter armor made from iron plates.
The above image shows the differences in construction between upper and lower leg armor and the fit of each. Kusazari was designed to match the rest of the suit of armor and was made in a variety of colors.
5) Kote (arm guards)
The final major pieces of a samurai’s armor were arm guards called kote. In the early days of the samurai, kote were simple tubes of cloth that were sometimes reinforced with chain mail.
As weaponry and battle tactics evolved, samurai armorers began crafting arm guards out of iron. The golden kote plates in the photo above are an example of later arm guards that are similar in shape and construction to those of European knights.
The way samurai wore kote also changed depending on the time period and the types of weapons used. In the Kamakura period, for example, samurai commonly wore kote on only one arm to make drawing a longbow easier.
6) Tsuba (hand guard)
A samurai was not ready for battle without his katana and wakizashi swords. Armorers fitted these weapons with decorative and protective hand guards, or tsuba that served as a barrier between the blade of the sword and the samurai’s hand.
Tsuba were highly decorated works of art that also served as functional components of samurai armor. Commonly painted gold and black, armorers and swordsmiths crafted tsuba in a range of shapes and sizes.
Designs were individualized and unique to different sword makers. The tsuba pictured above dates to the 17th or 18th century and its deep chiseling is characteristic of the Mino School of sword making.
Famous Armorers & Their Armor
Armorers in Japan enjoyed steady employment from the 10th to the 16th centuries, when samurai clans fought for absolute power. Clans employed armorers and swordsmiths from the top schools in Japan to craft their armor and weapons.
The Warring States period produced the most armor, as it was a time of near-constant fighting between the top samurai clans in Japan.
Tokugawa Ieyasu reunified Japan after winning the Battle of Sekigahara and a long period of peace followed.
Because of this, new armor was not in high demand, and only samurai lords could afford to have new armor custom-made. Only a few schools of armory survived the transition from war to peace, but the following are some of the top armorers who worked during the peaceful Edo period.
1) Bamen Tomotsugu
The Bamen School originated in the 16th century and crafted armor for the Honda samurai clan. Bamen Tomotsugu worked during the 18th century and was the last master armorer from the school.
Tomotsugu worked in the Echizen province and is known for his unique style and use of color. As seen in the photo above, Tomotsugu experimented with new ways of adding color to suits of armor. The kusazari leg armor features white, orange, green, and black panels. This incorporation of several colors was rare.
2) Myōchin Munesuke
The Myōchin School was another famous armorer employed by some of the top samurai in Japan during the Edo period. Myōchin Munesuke was an armorer who lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
He use of embossing makes his armor unique. You can see an example of his use of embossed decoration in the image above. The breastplate features circular embossed design that would have been symbolic to the individual who wore it.
3) Myōchin Muneakira
As stated above, the Myōchin School of armory was famous for its use of metal embossing. The master armorer Myōchin Muneakira perfected this metalworking method.
During the peaceful Edo period, armorers had fewer clients and more time to explore new ways of producing armor. Pieces became more decorative and aesthetics took the place of functionality.
The embossing pictured above is an excellent example of Muneakira’s impractical but beautiful high-relief embossing. This embossing on a samurai breastplate would not have served a samurai in battle, as it created many catch-points for an opponent’s weapons.
However, it is a beautiful contribution to Edo period art.
Muneakira excelled at high-relief embossing techniques, but is perhaps most famous for mask making. Embossing and sculpting iron were specialties of the Myōchin family.
The mask pictured above is considered to be Muneakira’s masterpiece. The famous mask was made in 1763 and depicts Jikokuten, the guardian of the East and one of the Four Kings of Heaven.
4) Saotome Ietada
(early to mid 19th century)
Saotome Ietada’s armor can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions today. Ietada lived during the early to mid 19th century, when the samurai era came to an end.
His designs combined Western elements introduced to Japan during this period as well as traditional Buddhist imagery. Western processes like etching can be seen on the dome of the helmet pictured here. The shape of this helmet is modeled after a Dutch cabasset.
Saotome Ietada’s armor reflects Japan’s early modern to modern transition in the 19th century.