Japanese crafts: arms and armour
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 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.