Stories of the Japanese military speak about these fearless warriors and their god-like armour. We find out about the samurai and the beauty behind their armour
Words Yvonne Jacob
Japan is known for its vast and culturally rich history that speaks volumes of the country’s bravado and valour. Amongst the many things that add to the Japanese honour, they are particularly proud of their dangerous and intimidating warriors of the past. Their samurai who fought relentlessly and honoured their code in all situations till their very last breath. More than 150 years ago the samurai class, that numbered less than 10% of Japan’s population, had dissolved but stories of their discipline still have a lot to tell us about the virtue and strength of the Japanese military. Not only were the samurai skillful warriors, they were also expected to be highly cultured and literate; to be skilled in the harmony of fighting and learning. Whether it is in a castle that bore witness to many gruesome battles or a park that has statues of the greatest samurai, their proof is everywhere.
One of the most famous samurai to be known was Miyamoto Musashi. He was born in Miyamoto-Sanoma in the province of Mimasaka, Japan in 1584. He was only ten years old when his parents died. He found himself living in a monastery where he learned Zen Buddhism from the monks there. He was a prodigious child who trained himself in the art of sword fighting at an early age and won his first duel at the age of thirteen. He won sixty duels throughout his life, some of which were against multiple enemies.
A samurai by the name of Arima Kihei was passing through Musashi’s town and he openly challenged anyone who was brave enough to fight him. A 13-year-old Musashi accepted the challenge which was also his first duel. Kihei was a professionally trained adult samurai yet Musashi used a wooden sword against Kihei’s razor-sharp short sword. Musashi eventually beat Kihei to death.
Musashi won many challenges in his lifetime and had his share of enemies who were after his life as well. One of his opponents was Sasaki Kojiro, one of the most feared and respected warriors in the land. In 1612, Musashi and Kojiro agreed to meet on an island to fight. Musashi cut his opponent’s throat, killing him instantly. Around 1642, Musashi became sick and sensed that the end was near for him and so he retired to a cave where he wrote his masterpiece, Go Rin No Sho (The Book of five Rings), that described the strategies and principles of martial arts with a touch of philosophy. He also wrote a book on self-discipline called Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone), which he completed in 1645, just months before he died on May 19th, 1645, due to natural causes. Miyamoto Musashi is known to be one of the greatest swordsmen to have ever lived.
The beauty and brutality of Tomoe Gozen, one of the deadliest female samurai is a tale that is very famous in Japan. Gozen was a beautiful samurai with white skin and long black hair who was ready to battle any god or demon. Whenever a battle was imminent, she was sent out as the first captain equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow.
She was described as having incredible talent on the battlefield as well as an extremely high intellect. In battle, she displayed great skills in archery and horseback riding, as well as mastery of the Katana. Off the battlefield, she was just as fearsome. Her troops obeyed her command and trusted her instincts. The master of the Minamoto clan named Tomoe Gozen as Japan’s first true general and she did not disappoint.
In 1184, she led a troop of 300 samurai into battle against 2,000 opposing Tiara clan warriors and she was one of only five to survive. Later that year, during the famous Battle of Awazu, Gozen defeated the Musashi clan’s most powerful warrior, decapitating him and keeping his head as a trophy.
The god-like beauty and elegance of the samurai armour was based on visual culture that placed a great deal of emphasis on the combination of delicacy and brutality. The life of a samurai was not easy as there were constant wars being raged during the 700 years of Japanese military rule. With the usage of archery being replaced by swords and overtime, firearms too, there was a need for a suit of armour that was flexible and impenetrable.
Attempts to create the all-around perfect suit of armour led to the development of the distinctly Japanese defensive covering. The samurai was encased from head to toe in pieces of overlapping layers of iron, leather, metals, tied together by silk threads. Each of the elements on a warrior’s armour was personalised and significant. The pieces took months to create which made them even more vital to the warrior.
The primary purpose of armour design was to signal a warrior’s allegiance. The secondary was to strike fear into the enemy and third, was to be beautiful and impressive while also looking brutally intimidating. According to the bushido (warrior) code of conduct, the only way for a warrior to die was in battle, in some cases, even suicide was better thanto dishonour the code. For this reason, many samurai were buried in the armour they wore into battle and so they had to be magnificent.
Much of the samurai’s body was covered by hundreds of iron scales held together with leather and silk laces to imitate snake or dragon skin. The scales were generally coloured in restrained dark blues and browns, but lords with more resources often favoured blood red or a gold lacquer finish. The iron chest plates, helmets, and masks had the strength to withstand swords, arrows and even bullets from imported European muskets.
The most important part of an armour was the helmet and facemask which was the easiest way to intimidate the enemy. The masks were shaped to look like devils or mountain spirits. They were typically made of iron and then embellished with fur, rhino horns and lacquers. The adornments that were chosen were sometimes family crests or cla symbols like chrysanthemums or a crescent moon. Others had fierce beasts like dragons, lions or birds of prey.
By the 18th century, the shotguns managed to bring peace to Japan and the samurai had little work to do except taking up work or becoming bureaucrats. Samurai ideals of respect, discipline and honour have transcended through Japanese history and are prevalent across this unique nation that the rest of the world admires. Few armours are still kept intact by the rich as showpieces and some are still on display in museums, acting as silent reminders of the fearless samurai and the way of the warrior.