FEATURE: Feudal armour combined beauty and function
FUKUOKA (The Japan News/ANN) - Masterpieces of armour and swords are on display at “The Exhibition of Samurai,” underway at the Fukuoka City Museum until Nov. 4.
The exhibition focuses on the items’ functionality — which tends to be overshadowed by their appearance and historical value — and presents them with related visuals to highlight the changes in fighting styles and the military system that took place over the 600 years from the birth of samurai warriors to the unification of Japan.
Fighting on horseback
In the middle of the Heian period (794 to the late 12th century), nihonto Japanese swords featuring curved blades with a ridgeline appeared, in tandem with the formation of warrior bands.
One of the 60 swords on display at the exhibition is a tachi long sword known as “Otenta” that was passed down within the Maeda family in Kaga, now Ishikawa Prefecture. It dates back to the late Heian period and is considered one of the five finest swords in Japan.
At the time, however, samurai were primarily knights who used bows on horseback. As described in the “Illustrated Scroll of the Zenkunen (Former Nine Years’) War” in the mid-Kamakura period (late 12th century to 1333), battles mainly featured archery clashes fought on horses.
Large armor called o-yoroi appeared in response to these circumstances. The “Armor of O-Yoroi Type, braided with Leather Thongs with Cherry Blossoms Pattern” that was on display until Oct. 6 is said to have belonged to Minamoto no Tametomo, who was known for wielding bows with a heavy draw weight.
The armor has retained its form from the late Heian period. Its loose waistline does not closely fit the body, and the sides are wide open for better mobility, so that a warrior could shoot arrows in any direction on horseback.
The exhibits tell us that light gear, such as haramaki belly bands and domaru armor wrapped around the torso, was often made instead of heavy large armor after the Nambokucho period (14th century).
The skirt-like kusazuri, or tasset, that protects the body below the waist, used four plates to cover a fighter in all directions. After the Nambokucho period, the plates became narrower, using seven or eight plates to cover the lower body.
The size of each kozane — scales made of cow leather or iron — became smaller than their predecessors. The “Armor of Domaru Type, laced with Blue Threads” made during this period, for example, consists of kozane measuring 6.1 centimeters by 1.8 centimeters each. This is much smaller than those used for Tametomo’s “Armor of O-Yoroi Type,” which are 8 centimeters by 4.7 centimeters.
Kabuto helmets also became lighter and changed from a “hoshi type” helmet featuring iron plates joined with large rivets, to a “suji type” helmet, in which small rivets were covered with the edges of the plate to form a streaked pattern.
“The battle style changed to infantry wielding long swords, and the style of armor stressed better defense and mobility,” said museum curator Kazushige Horimoto.
Large swords, or o-dachi, appeared along with the shift in battle styles. The blade of the “Long Sword (Tachi) known as ‘Nikko Ichimonji’” that is typical of swords from the Kamakura period is 67.8 centimeters long, while “Large Sword (O-Dachi), with Red Lacquered Sheath Inscription: ‘Osafune Tomomitsu, resident of Bishu region/ February, 1366” has a 126-centimeter blade.
The fact that large swords were a practical tool can be seen in the “Portrait of Mounted Warrior,” which is said to depict warlord Ashikaga Takauji holding a large sword on his shoulder.
However, swords suddenly became smaller in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), apparently so they could be drawn and sheathed smoothly. The blade length of the “Long Sword (Katana) known as ‘Heshikiri Hasebe,’” which was given to Kuroda Kanbei by warlord Oda Nobunaga, shortened o-dachi to 64.8 centimeters.
In the Sengoku warring period (late 15th to late 16th centuries), armor became tighter in the waist, and protective guards on the sleeves and elsewhere fitted the body more closely.
When many ashigaru, or common foot soldiers, were mobilized, the process of producing arms was simplified. Armor plate formed from dozens of scales appeared, as did a light-peach shaped (momonari) helmet made of iron plates joined together.
In the late 16th-century Momoyama period, body armor was made thicker to protect against bullets. Tosei gusoku appeared, which protected the whole body with such features as gauntlets integrated with an arm protector.
The “Armor Set of European (Namban) Style” that warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu wore during the Battle of Sekigahara was formed to completely protect the body, consisting of two iron plates that cover the torso front and back, and bib-like protective armor made of iron.
This armor can be described as the pinnacle of the craft, honed through numerous actual battles.