T his 21–28 September, The Charlier and Cortina Collection of Exotic Samurai Helmets and Armour comprises a curated selection. The single owner collection includes an impressive shell-shaped helmet (awabi-nari kabuto) with repoussé work, a helmet applied to the apex in russet black lacquer in the form of a stylised wave (Naruto-nari) and a rare Myochin school full face mask (somen) representing the wizened face of an elderly man (okina). The sale culminates with an example of a fine hotoke-do armour, the helmet signed Masuda Myochin Minbu Ki no Munesada saku, as well as other accoutrements and works of art associated with the samurai.
‘All furnished, All in Arms’ : Japanese armour and kawari kabuto
by Gregory Irvine, Senior Research Fellow, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Quote from Henry IV, Part I, Act 4, Scene 1. William Shakespeare
Early Japanese armour falls into two types: the tanko is formed of solid iron plates laced (or riveted) together which hinge at the sides to close at the front. The tanko was superseded by the keiko, an armour formed of small scales laced together vertically and in horizontal rows. The keiko is a flexible armour and forms the basis for all later styles of Japanese armour.
By the Kamakura era (1185-1333) battles were mostly fought by cavalry with the bow as principal weapon and armour had developed into the flexible Ō-yoroi (Great Harness) where protection against arrows was the foremost consideration.
The cuirass (dō) was constructed from horizontal rows of lacquered iron plates (kozane) laced vertically with a covering of leather (tsurubashiri) to prevent the bow string from snagging. The upper part of the chest was protected by a solid iron plate (munaita). The armour covered all four sides of the body joining on the right with an additional plate (waidate). The fixings for the shoulder straps were protected by on the left by the kyubi no ita, a solid plate defence, and on the right by the sendan no ita, composed of lamellar strips; large hanging shoulder guards (ō-sode) provided further protection. The back of the armour was adorned with a decorative bow (agemaki) suspended from a gilded metal ring to which cords secured the ō-sode. The skirt (kusazuri) consisted of linked flexible plates which protected the thighs and lower abdomen. The arms were protected by mail gauntlets (kote) with solid plates attached for increased defence.
The bowl of the helmet (kabuto) consisted of iron plates rivetted vertically and numbering from a few to over a hundred. If the rivets were prominent then the style is referred to as hoshi kabuto (‘star’ helmet). As well as being decorative, these rivets provided extra protection against a sword cut. If the plates have strong vertical ridges then the style is known as suji kabuto. The top of the bowl has a hole, tehen no ana or Hachimanza, which affords ventilation in battle. The helmet has a small rivetted peak (mabezashi) to which a crest (maedate) and the decorative horn-like projections (kuwagata) are affixed. The neck guard (shikoro) is made of strips of lacquered leather or iron laced vertically together so as to be flexible around the neck. The top strip is rivetted to the helmet bowl and the front portion is turned back in the fukigaeshi.
In the early Muromachi era (1333-1568) the hammered iron full-face mask (menpo) or half-face mask (hoate) with an attached flexible neck guard was adopted. The mask was secured to the face by the helmet ties. The facial features were fearsome, and the addition of yak-hair moustaches and whiskers added to the impact of the mask. Some masks had detachable nose pieces and most had a small hole or tube at the bottom of the chin piece to permit the drainage of sweat… The interior of the masks was frequently lacquered red to enhance the ferocity of the wearer.
The Muromachi era saw Japan riven with almost constant fighting. The changes in battle tactics from cavalry to close quarters fighting by larger groups on foot saw further modifications to armour. The ō-yoroi became lighter, and there was a gradual adoption of simpler forms of armour for the common foot soldier (ashigaru), with the haramaki and the dōmaru styles becoming prevalent. The haramaki laced at the back; the dōmaru wrapped around the body, hinging on the right; both used a combination of lacquered leather and iron plates.
The period from around 1568-1600 is known as the Momoyama era and was renowned as a time of great opulence and luxury which saw an almost unprecedented rise in the decorative arts and the development of a cosmopolitan culture with flamboyant expressions of personal taste. Fantastical forms of armour were produced, often with western-influenced design; western powers had arrived in Japan around 1543, bringing with them the gun which had a profound effect on armour production.
The kabuto assumed extravagant shapes which represented the wearer’s personal taste as well as the skills of the armourer to produce such incredible forms. These helmets became known as kawari-kabuto – ‘exotic’ or ‘transformed’ helmets. Armourers spectacular shapes to be affixed to iron helmet bowls, these sometimes from earlier periods. The exotic, often sculptural forms were made in the technique known as harikake (papier-mâché mixed with lacquer over a wooden armature), though some were made of thinly hammered iron or even lacquered leather. These creations took many shapes and forms but included real and mythical creatures, deities, forms of headwear, stylised waves and mountains as well as types of headgear. The helmets drew attention to the wearer and would, when in very extreme forms, be impractical on the battlefield, though would be distinctive as the senior samurai commanded his troops from a rear-guard position.
In 1600, at the Battle of Sekigahara, the daimyō (regional warlord) Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his immediate rivals and in 1603 was declared shōgun; in 1615 his last rivals were defeated, and Japan was finally unified under one military ruler. To restrict potential threats to the shōgunate, the system of Sankin Kōtai was introduced whereby the regional daimyō had to maintain both their country estates as well as residences in Edo, the shogun’s capital, from where the era is named (1615-1868).
The processions of Sankin Kōtai from the provinces to and from Edo were splendid affairs and were an opportunity for the daimyō to display their personal wealth and standing. The size and splendour of the daimyō’s cortege were an outward indication of his status and senior members of the daimyō’s retinue were resplendently attired with fine armour and swords.
With no further need for practical armour for warfare, much of the armour of the later Edo period was made purely for Sankin Kōtai or for other parade purposes and helmets especially became even more ornate. Much of the parade armour of this time was made of lacquered leather and were relatively light and far more suited to processions, particularly in the hot and humid climate of Japan’s summers.
In the late eighteenth century there was a resurgence of nationalistic spirit which advocated a return to things purely ‘Japanese’. Around 1800 this revival resulted in an increase in the production of armour in the style of the Ō-yoroi, the armour used during the Kamakura period, the peak of samurai martial spirit. These armours, made for Sankin Kōtai and ceremonial purposes featured additions which would not have been found on earlier armours, but these defences were purely ornamental rather than functional, and historical accuracy was not of prime importance. The antiquarian style of the armour was sufficient to invoke the samurai’s glorious military heritage of the earlier periods.