Ft will be fascinating for you, if you have the opportunity, to visit one of the museums in the test that have suits of Japanese armor. That’s because feudal -apan took a diferent approach to body armor than we fnd in Europe.
To some degree, the samurai traded protection for mobility. Rather than using rigid, curved metal sections like the European knights did, the Japanese constructed their armor from an elaborately woven series of leather panels. Roughly half the size of a playing card, these flat plates were pierced, then overlapped and laced together with silk to create shapes that conformed to the body of the wearer.
Few images are more romantic and evocative than that of the fully armored samurai, resplendent, often wearing a helmet decorated with fantastic horns or spikes, giant kite-like sheets protecting his arms, layered cuirasses wrapped around his body. As with many appealing pictures taken from history, the reality of this one was very different.
FIRST, GETTING INTO such armor was complicated. Attendants had to tie the numerous knots to hold all the parts in place in a manner that allowed freedom of movement. Second, once the armor was donned, the samurai — especially on long campaigns — often lived in it. The
yoroi got wet in the rain. The hundreds of tiny crevices in the kozane, or individual plates, attracted lice. One of my teachers owns an heirloom scroll that has a recipe for getting rid of these creatures.
I’ve worn armor on a few occasions. Even going through kata is a remarkable training experience. Movements you take for granted are awkward, even impossible, in a yoroi. You learn a lot wearing one. But the armor of the samurai teaches other lessons, as well.
For example, most extravagant Japanese armor was never meant to be worn in battle. When the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan in 1600, battlefield warfare effectively ended in Japan for more than two centuries. Armor became a way of displaying the owner’s wealth, political importance or taste.
Many of the giant helmets and massive shoulder protections you see in museums never protected their wearers from mortal danger. They were worn in public processions during the latter centuries of the feudal period. A helmet decorated with enormous horns or a long crescent or festooned with hair that made it resemble a lion’s mane — these would have been impressive, but it would have been impractical to fight or even move freely while wearing one. IF THE MUSEUMS to which you have access don’t have Japanese armor from different periods, you can see examples in books or online. Go far enough back in time and you’ll see that the first sets, used during the 14th century, were massive. They were meant to be worn on horseback. Then, as battle shifted to infantry warfare (15th to 16th centuries), the yoroi achieved its practical peak. During the peaceful period that followed, we begin to see the extreme, expansive decoration — the grandiose styles that looked impressive but had no practical value.
It’s always instructive to consider this question: What happens when a fighting
art no longer has a practical use? It might wither and die. Or it might, like Japanese armor, assume purely decorative attributes. The fancy, the showy and the exaggerated become dominant. If you’ve ever watched “modern kata” at a karate tournament, this should sound familiar. The lavish armor suits of the peaceful Edo period served their purpose: They impressed. Perhaps we can say the same of the �lashy, acrobatic karate kata of today.
Just remember, however, that real warriors of the samurai era put their armor to a different use than �launting their status. Look at the two varieties of armor, but don’t confuse them.
IT IS INTERESTING, too, to consider the weakness of much of Japanese armor: the silk cords that bind the plates together. There are hundreds of these lacings. Silk is remarkably strong when kept clean and dry, but when it gets wet and is exposed to sunlight, it begins to rot. Eventually, it degrades.
This is one reason armor, when not worn, was kept in boxes of paulownia wood: It repelled insects, acted as a dehumidi�ier and kept the silk away from sunlight. Armor that’s been stored in such boxes for hundreds of years may have silk lacings that look new. On the other hand, yoroi on display in museums can see the silk turn to dust with a single touch.
SO WHAT DO YOU DO if you’re fortunate enough to own one of these treasures? Do you lock it away in its box and keep it in great condition — and never look at it or enjoy its beauty? Or do you keep it out, on display, and allow it to eventually fall apart?
You might be interested to know that those who study classical Japanese mar-
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tial arts have their own approach. In many cases, they’ll wear the original armor until it begins to fail. Then they’ll replace the silk with nylon. It doesn’t seem very traditional, but nylon will hold up long after the original silk has failed.
Being a “traditionalist” doesn’t mean wearing a suit of armor until it’s broken and useless just because some of the original elements have degraded. It is, instead, a process. One implements the modern where it’s necessary and useful. One preserves the old even when it means adopting the new.