Japanese Arms & Armour

Suit of armour, made by Myochin Muneharu, Japan, 1859. Museum no. 362 to R-1865, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Suit of armour, made by Myochin Muneharu, Japan, 1859. Museum no. 362 to R-1865, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

During the peaceful Edo period, although fighting equipment was no longer needed, the provincial governors were regularly required to attend the shogun's court.

The samurai's interest in fine armour arose from their desire to appear with as much prestige and status as they could on their way to and from court. Both wearers and makers had a fascination with the armour of the past and revived many past styles. Traditional armour became functionally redundant after the introduction of firearms by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Armour became a showcase for the arts of many types of metalworkers, embroiderers and weavers.

Samurai armour evolved as styles of warfare changed. 'Great armour' was first made in the eleventh and twelfth centuries for mounted archers. It was brightly coloured with gold or silver gilt, and combined the skill of the armourer with that of weavers, leather workers and lacquerers. Many parts were made of iron or leather plates laced together with silk chord and lacquered. Flexible panels covered the torso, arms and thighs.

Distinctive features of this style of armour include the low, round helmet with prominent rivets or 'stars', the broad neck-guard with large turnbacks, large areas of stencilled decoration and very large shoulder guards. Later forms of samurai armour evolved from this style.

Many features were for effect only; full face plates, for example, were not worn in battle as they restricted vision. Though the form and decoration were based on previous styles, there were also outside influences: one helmet from 1600-1650 is in the form of a European hat. Some of the suits of armour displayed rest on the chests in which they would have been stored and transported.

Samurai had the habit of shaving a circle of hair above the forehead before going into battle, to keep the head cool under the helmet. Later, in peacetime, they began to keep the area shaved all the time and draw the rest of the hair back into a tight knot. The wearing of top-knots by men was finally forbidden by law in 1871.

Swords

Swords were said to represent the living soul of the samurai. A short sword and a long sword, collectively known as the daisho, were worn together and used in battle. The long sword, the katana, was typically used in one-to-one combat, and the short sword (wakizashi) was used as a close-combat weapon. The sword blades were made by a complex process that involved forging, folding and re-folding the steel many times, and tempering to give a strong, resilient blade with a hard, sharp edge. The sword fittings (including tsuba or sword guard) also show fine craftwork.

Long and short sword (Daisho), matching katana and wakizashi, Japan, about 1800. Museum no. M.20:1-1949, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Long and short sword (Daisho), matching katana and wakizashi, Japan, about 1800. Museum no. M.20:1-1949, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

120-plate Japanese helmet, 1700-1800

120-plate Japanese helmet, signed: 'made by Yoshihide, resident of Suifu in Joshu province', Japan, 1700-1800. Museum no. FE.11-2009, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

120-plate Japanese helmet, signed: 'made by Yoshihide, resident of Suifu in Joshu province', Japan, 1700-1800. Museum no. FE.11-2009, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This extremely fine quality Japanese helmet is of the type known as suji-bachi (ridged bowl) and is made from 120 russet iron plates riveted vertically. The inscription inside the helmet reads 'Joshu (modern-day Ibaraki Prefecture) Suifu ju Yoshihide Saku'. The armourer is not recorded, but was likely to be of the Myochin school, one of three main schools of armourers who worked in Joshu province.

The circular top fitting (tehen no ana) is of shakudo, an alloy of copper and gold which is patinated to a rich blue-black hue. The leading edges of the flexible neck-protector (shikoro) are of fine pierced shakudo with a design of chrysanthemums and backed by gilded copper plates. The sixteenth century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi described this shakudo as having 'the colour of rain on a crow's wing'. The edges of the peak and the leading edges of the side curved fittings (fukigaeshi) are also of shakudo with finely engraved floral decoration. The fukigaeshi also has round decoration in shakudo of stylised hollyhock leaves, the family crest of Tokugawa family, the samurai clan who ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868.

120-plate Japanese helmet (rear view), signed: 'made by Yoshihide, resident of Suifu in Joshu province', Japan, 1700-1800. Museum no. FE.11-2009, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

120-plate Japanese helmet (rear view), signed: 'made by Yoshihide, resident of Suifu in Joshu province', Japan, 1700-1800. Museum no. FE.11-2009, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This was a period of relative peace in Japan after the victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 which paved the way for the rule of the Tokugawa Shoguns. From 1615, when Tokugawa defeated his last enemies at the Battle of Osaka Castle, the samurai class had little further occasion to test their skills in battle but were nevertheless required to maintain their military arts. Armour was increasingly relegated to a ceremonial role, not least on the annual samurai processions from their regional domains to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and the Tokugawa court. Decoration and appearance took precedence over practicality and armourers had the opportunity to develop their skills and their patrons could reveal personal taste in the fine fittings of their processional armour.

The provenance of this helmet is interesting. It was given to Basil William Robinson (1912 - 2005) around 1953 by H.R. Robinson (no relation), Keeper at the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London. B W Robinson (known generally as 'Robbie') joined the V&A's staff in 1939 and was Keeper of the Department of Metalwork from 1966 until his retirement in 1972, and then Keeper Emeritus until 1976. He helped establish the V&A's Far Eastern Department - the first culturally based curatorial collection in the V&A.

It was Robbie's wish that his long friendship with his counterpart at the Royal Armouries would be marked by the donation of this helmet to the V&A, and this was achieved under the Government's Acceptance in Lieue (AIL) Scheme.

Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum

In memory of H.R. Robinson

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