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.

Black Belt - - FRONT PAGE - By aave iowry

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-

Mafy ff ghe gi­afg helmegs afd mas­sive sh­ful­der prfgecgiffs yfu see if mu­se­ums fever prfgecged gheir wear­ers frfm mfr­gal dafger.

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.

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