Samurai fought on the field of battle for a thousand years, and during that time their arms and armor went through a fascinating evolution.

Just about everyone can form a mental image of what a samurai looks like when he’s headed into battle. He’s got a single-edged, curved sword, lamellar armor, and probably a helmet with crests, horns, or some other kind of cool ornamentation, right?

But the era of the samurai lasted for over 1,000 years, and during that time there were changes in technology, military strategy, and even fashion. So just like the clothes you wear and the phone you use now are different from the ones your parents and grandparents did, samurai arms and armor evolved with time.

That evolution is one of the themes of Samurai: The Beauty and Pedigree of Warriors, an exhibition currently being held by the Fukuoka City Museum. 147 pieces of samurai armor and weaponry are on display, with more than half officially designated as national treasures due to their historical significance. Ordinarily photography is prohibited, but the museum granted us special permission to bring these images to you, just in case you can’t make it to Fukuoka between now and November 4, when the exhibit ends.

Let’s start by talking about armor. In the Heian period (which lasted from 794 to 1185), warfare in Japan was primarily conducted by warriors of comparatively highborn birth, who engaged each other on horseback in the open field by firing arrows at one another as they rode.

Since the horse was the one doing most of the mobility work, weight wasn’t much of a concern, and the torso section alone of a suit of Heian period armor could weigh as much as 20 kilograms (44 pounds), and separately added shoulder protectors would add about three kilograms each. The armor was loose-fitting around the wearer’s mid-section and had large openings at the armpits to allow for easy nocking of arrows and aiming of the bow.

But as the years went by, construction techniques improved, commerce started to develop, and cities started to spring up, often with a local warlord’s samurai castle in the center. These strongholds became high-priority military targets, and since cavalry are of very little use in waging or fighting off a siege, armor needed to become lighter, since the samurai were now fighting on foot and couldn’t rely on a horse’s load-carrying stamina.

More melee combat in the Genpei and Kamakura periods (1180-1333) also meant that gaps and openings in the armor had to get smaller, since an enemy standing inches away from you can fit the point of their blade into an unprotected space more easily than someone firing an arrow from the other side of the skirmish.

▼ As armor got more form-fitting, the waists were brought in, giving samurai on the field of battle an almost hourglass-like figure.

Remember how we said that in the Heian period, samurai combat was primarily a wealthy man’s profession? That started to change with the shift to on-foot combat, since there was no longer a need to supply as much of the army with costly-to-care-for horses. Once the Muromachi and Sengoku periods (1336-1600) came about, a large portion of the combatants were ashigaru, essentially farmers and other commoners converted into foot soldiers in the service of their local liege lord. In order to equip much larger armies, armor construction had to become cheaper and simpler. Armorers started combining what were previously multiple pieces of a suit into composite pieces, like the kote, a combination gauntlet and armored sleeve.

However, the shift to simpler armor design created a problem for the high-ranking samurai: it didn’t look as cool. Fewer separate parts and plates meant less need to tie components together with cords, but the coloring and design of those cords had long been a way for samurai to distinguish themselves visually on the field. So what did samurai bigwigs do instead? They started commissioning more and more elaborate helmets.

Granted, a lot of these weren’t particularly practical, since they were cumbersome and top-heavy. But remember, at this point there were ashigaru to do a lot of the gritty up-close fighting, and high-ranking samurai were primarily acting as generals making tactical decisions and giving orders, not personally crossing swords with enemy forces.

Late in the Sengoku period, Japan was engaging in an increasing level of trade with foreign merchants and missionaries, which resulted in nambando gokuso, or “southern barbarian armor” (“southern barbarians” being a term for Europeans at the time, due to their presence in the Kyushu region, at the southern end of Japan).

Nambando gokuso is kind of like the tempura of samurai armor, in that it’s a mix of Western and Japanese elements. This suit here, for example, has a European-style breastplate made of a large single piece of metal, as well as gorget over the collarbone and upper chest, but it also uses lamellar for the skirts and throat guard, as well as kote gauntlet sleeves and strap-on suneate shin guards.

Nambando Gokuso had only a brief battlefield presence in Japan, as it wouldn’t be long until the Battle of Sekigahara, which took place in 1600, solidified the power of the Tokugawa clan enough for it to establish a shogunate that lasted nearly three centuries. During that time, Japan had relatively few military conflicts until the modern era, at which point armor itself had become a thing of history.

Of course, it wasn’t just the defensive aspect of samurai combat that evolved over time. Katana also changed significantly throughout Japanese history, and we’ll be back soon to explain how in the second part of this series.

Museum information
Fukuoka City Museum / 福岡市博物館
Address: Fukuoka-ken, Fukuoka-shi, Sawara-ku, Momochihama 3-1-1
Open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Closed Mondays
Admission 1,500 yen (US$14)
Museum website
Exhibition website

Photos ©SoraNews24
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