Samurai: Japanese arms & armour

The word samurai derives from the term meaning ‘one who serves’ and refers to those allegiances to the military groupings which evolved around the 10th century to protect and expand their provincial domains. They had a profound effect on the military and political state of the country, but they also formed their own aristocratic courts and became major patrons of the arts.

Suit of armour, mid 19th century, Japan. Museum no. M.55-1922. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1185, following years of civil war, the warrior clan of Minamoto Yoritomo defeated his enemies, the Taira. In 1192, the emperor appointed Yoritomo as supreme military leader - Shōgun (Seii Tai Shōgun - Barbarian Conquering General). The ruling military elite were expected not only to master the arts of war, but also to acquire literary and administrative skills. Many senior samurai were well versed in poetry, were patrons of painters and sculptors, and attended the literary salons held by imperial court nobles and monks.

However, rival daimyō (regional warlords) fought to expand their territories and Japan was soon plunged into civil war. This lasted until 1615 when the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated the last of his enemies and Japan finally became unified under one powerful family. The military capital was established at Edo, modern-day Tokyo. Under the Tokugawa shōgunate codes of behaviour evolved around the Japanese tradition of absolute loyalty and willingness to die for one's master. This led to the development of Bushidō - The Way of the Warrior – by which the samurai maintained both their moral and military values through training with the sword.

The Battle of Shijō Nawate (1348) three-sheet print, Ichikawa Yoshikazu, about 1850, Japan. Museum no. E.13696-1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many samurai looked back to their military past and illustrations of great heroes, both real and legendary, were popular subjects for the growing number of woodblock prints that were available to the public at that time.

The Battle of Nagashino (1575), three-sheet woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Museum no. E.14210-1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By the 19th century the samurai had all-but lost their original function and there was growing pressure to have them removed from authority and the emperor restored to full power. In 1868, fighting took place around Kyoto between Tokugawa forces and an imperial army; the Tokugawa were defeated and an imperial restoration was declared. Samurai status was abolished in a series of measures culminating in the Haitōrei Edict of 1876, which ended the privilege of bearing swords, the weapons that had been central to the samurai’s authority.


By the 12th century, battles were carried out mostly by cavalry with the bow and sword as principal weapons. Armour developed into the flexible Ō-yoroi - ‘Great Harness’, where protection against arrows was the foremost consideration. The cuirass was formed of lamellar plates linked together in a flexible way with an upper part solid plate giving increased protection. The front of the cuirass was covered with leather so that the bowstring would not snag on the plates. Two shoulder pieces fell into position when the arms were raised and they protected the exposed underarm area; two smaller plates on the breast protected the armour fixings; the skirt was also made from linked flexible plates that protected the thighs and lower abdomen. The arms were protected by mail gauntlets with solid plates attached for increased defence.

Suit of armour in haramaki style, 1850, Japan. Museum nos. M.95:1-1955 to M.95:14-1955. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Helmets were formed of iron plates riveted vertically; the top of the helmet had a decorated hole that provided some ventilation for the head during battle. The sides had linked rows of flexible lamellae protecting the neck and shoulders and provided protection when the arms were raised to cut with the sword or shoot with the bow. As warfare moved from cavalry to massed ranks of foot soldiers, so armour styles changed and became lighter and more flexible. Helmets from earlier periods were often incorporated into these new suits of armour.

120-plate helmet, signed Yoshihide, about 1700-1800, Joshu Province, Japan. Museum no. FE.11-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

With Japan at peace from around 1615, armour was used for ceremonial occasions and for the regular compulsory processions from a daimyō’s regional domain to the capital of Edo (Tokyo). These processions were an opportunity for a daimyō to display personal taste and the size and splendour of his cortège were recognized as an outward indication of his status. Most of the armour produced at this time was made purely for procession or parade purposes. They were relatively light and, being made of lacquered leather rather than iron, were far more suited to processions. However, important defensive sections of these suits were still made of iron, and the helmets – the most important part of a suit of armour – were often remodelled from earlier periods to be both decorative and effective.

‘Ehon Zen Taiheiki’ (Chronicle of the Great Peace), woodblock printed book , 18th century, Japan. Museum no. E.14979-1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The Japanese sword has a unique place among the world’s weaponry. Perhaps in no other society has technology produced such a superb cutting weapon that is held in high esteem due to both its effectiveness in battle and in the spiritual qualities it is believed to contain. Its efficiency is such that it can cut through armour without breaking or bending and its spirituality is imbued by the religious rites involved in its production. The Japanese sword is a terrible and efficient weapon combining a beauty of form with an elegance of function.

Long sword (Ito-maki-no tachi), signed by Morimitsu of Osafune, 14th century, Japan. Museum no. M.139-1929. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The sword was the indispensable weapon of the samurai and a symbol of his authority. He should be prepared to combine his physical strength with his inner spirit and have the inner resolution to use the sword at a moment’s notice to kill, or be killed in the service of his master. The importance and significance of the sword to the warrior are perhaps best summed up in the traditional Japanese saying, ‘The sword is the soul of the samurai’.

Woodblock print ‘Inariyama Ko-Kaji’ (The swordsmith on Mount Inari), Ogata Gekkō, about 1887, Japan. Museum no. E.355-1901. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Akama Project
Pair of long and short swords (daishō), probably assembled around 1840, Japan. Museum no. Museum no. M.20 & 21-1949. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Long sword (Ito-maki-no tachi), mounts by Ota Yoshihisa, blade inlaid with gold signature of Tomomitsu, Japan. Museum no. M.13-1949. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The unique Japanese method of creating a blade involves repeatedly folding and hammering billets of high and low carbon steel to form many layers which when brought together in the final folding produces a sword with a resilient core surrounded by a hard outer layer capable of cutting without breaking or bending. When polished, the distinctive features of the manufacturing process – the grain, tempering pattern and other details – all become apparent. Swords were appreciated not only for their cutting efficiency, but also for the intrinsic beauty of their metallurgical qualities, both by those who carried them and by the schools of sword appraisers that developed to assess and define the intrinsic and often subtle qualities of the blade.

'The Emperor Go-Toba participating in the forging of a sword', woodblock print from the series ‘Hyakunin Isshu’, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, about 1840, Japan. Museum no. E.11449-1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The blade is the most important part of the sword and fine old family heirlooms were often remounted in different styles. The blade might also be shortened to suit the fighting style of the owner and this could result in the loss of any signature on the tang of the blade. Sword appraisers then might inlay the maker’s signature, usually in gold, together with their own mark. In a time of peace, the cutting efficiency of a sword was tested on a corpse and these results inscribed on the tang of the blade.

(Left) Tameshigiri according to The Yamada Family from 'Sword and Same', Henri Joly and Inada Hogitarō, 18th century, Japan. Museum no. 91.D.50. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Right) Katana blade with tameshigiri (Cut Through Two Bodies) detail, signed Morimichi of Kaga, 1682, Japan. Museum no. M.74:1-1922. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London