Yoroi: Armors of the samurai
In January 2018, the Samurai Art Museum of the Janssen collection presents a historical insight into the warfare of the samurai and the related design, production and usage of armors (yoroi). The permanent exhibition displays with a range of Japanese pieces the development stages of armors, helmets and masks from the beginning of the military rule of the samurai class in the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the age of warring states at the beginning of 15th century up to a period of peace ruled by the Tokugawa clan during the Edo period (1615-1868).
Through the predominance of the Yamato people from the 3rd century the first weapons as well as cuirasses and helmets were imported to Japan from the Asian mainland. The strengthening of the warrior class in the early Heian period (late 8th century) leaded during the following centuries to the development of different types of armor. The “great armor” (ō-yoroi), with big shoulder guards, a box-shaped cuirass and a helmet’s protruding neck guard was used to give a protection against arrows during horse mounted warfare. The lighter armor type (dō-maru) was wrapped around the torso and closed the right-hand side and which was initially used by infantry. From the 13th century on, the horse mounted warfare of the samurai using bow and arrow gradually decreased. Because the ō-yoroi made walking difficult, the samurai began to wear a better quality version of the dō-maru and afterwards a similar type of the lamellar armor, the haramaki has been introduced. As the near-constant military conflicts and the introduction of matchlocks by the Portuguese during the Sengoku period (c. 1477-1600) influenced the armors of the samurai, easy and quickly to produce and more practical helmets were designed. At the same time, bulletproof plates made of iron or leather have come into usage for the “new armors” (tōsei gusoku). Through the 250 years of peace, initiated by national isolation of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) in the early 17th century, the samurai armor became a symbol of the feudal lord’s status and traditional armors were no longer necessary for battles.
The exhibition offers a historical overview of the various development stages of samurai armor and which are combining the aspects of Japanese aesthetics, craftsmanship and the art of warfare.
Ian Bottomly is a retired curator of the Oriental Collections at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds and is a recognised expert of samurai art. His works about weapons and armour of the samurai as well as history of the samurai receives a great deal of attention among experts.
Bottomly has provided the Samurai Art Museum with an essay about the history of samurai which we would like to show you here:
THE HISTORY OF SAMURAI. By Ian Bottomley
The people we now know as Japanese arrived on the archipelago from Central Asia in a series of invasions during the first millennium of our era. They brought with them the horses, armour and weapons of their homelands, using them to displace the original inhabitants. By the end of the millennium they had adopted Buddhism, were using the Chinese system of writing and had established a sophisticated court in the city of Kyoto. Elsewhere in the country the minor aristocracy managed the estates of the nobles, collected taxes, maintained order, and should the need arise, put on armour to support one or other of the factions at court. It was these minor nobles who were given the name ‘samurai’; an ancient court title meaning ‘one who serves’.
In 1156 a dispute over succession at court and discontent over the dominance of the Fujiwara courtiers resulted in hostility between samurai clans. Eventually a war lasting 5 years broke our between the Minamoto and Taira clans. The leader of the victorious group was Minamoto Yoritomo to whom Emperor Go-Shirakawa granted the ancient title of Seii Tai Shogun or ‘Barbarian Conquering General’; usually shortened to ‘Shogun’. Among the privileges this gave to Yoritomo was the right to appoint constables and to collect taxes throughout the country. Successive shoguns took even more power from the emperor, becoming in effect the real rulers of the country and leaving the emperor powerless and reduced to performing ceremonies and rituals.
By the end of the first millennium the original Asian swords had developed into a new type whose shape and method of construction was so superior that the thousands of later smiths failed to improve it in any material way. As a result a swords made centuries apart were hardly any different from each other. A unique feature of these new swords was that their blades were designed to be removable from their mounts so that these could be changed whenever needed. Also unique was the way the blade was made, no other sword made anywhere else being similar.
Pure iron is a relatively soft metal but becomes harder when carbon that is used to smelt it from its ores dissolves in it. Steel, that is iron with a small amount of dissolved carbon, when heated to a high temperature and cooled rapidly, usually by quenching in water or oil, becomes very hard but at the same time as brittle as glass. In most of the world this problem was solved by re-heating the hardened metal to a lower temperature, reducing the brittleness but at the expense of losing some of the hardness. The Japanese way around the problem was to harden only the cutting edge and the point, which while brittle were supported and prevented from breaking by the soft body of the blade. We do not know exactly how this was achieved in the distant past because nothing was written down, but we do know how modern smiths who have been trained by an unbroken line of sword-makers carry out this process.
The steel used in making swords was smelted from the ore magnetite, obtained from riverbeds, in a clay walled furnace using charcoal as fuel. After a firing, a spongy mass of iron, steel and slag called tamahagane formed in the base of the furnace. The first task was to convert this material into the different grades of steels the smith needed for the blade. To do this, pieces of tamahagane were welded into a block that was then hammered out to twice its length, folding it in half and welding shut. By repeating this process up to 12 or more times the steel was homogenised, the slag was hammered out and the carbon content reduced to the level the smith needed by oxidation. Having produced the various grades of steel they were then welded together in a way that depended on the smith’s tradition and the quality of blade being produced. For a cheap sword, a strip of high carbon steel that was to become the point and cutting edge would be welded into a groove in a block of low carbon steel. A better quality blade would have a wide strip of high carbon steel formed into a U shape hammered closed at one end into which a low carbon steel core was welded. Even more complex constructions would involve making up a block with different steels that would form the edge, the sides, the back and core of the final blade. Whatever its structure, the block was then drawn out into the shape of the blade taking care that the different steels were not displaced from their positions. Having done as much of the shaping as possible with a hammer, it was refined even further using files and a scraper. At this stage the proto blade was still soft and straight.
Differential hardening was achieved by first coating the whole blade with a very thin layer of a mixture of clay, charcoal and powdered stone mixed with water. Those parts of the blade that were to remain soft were then covered with a thicker layer of the clay mixture. Narrow bands of clay were also added across its width of the blade that would form slightly softer regions to stop any crack that might start from spreading. Hardening took place in a darkened smithy so that the smith could judge the temperature of the blade by its colour when heated. When the smith judged it to be uniformly heated and at the correct temperature, it was plunged horizontally into water. Because the edge cooled and contracted almost instantly the blade first took on a concave curve, becoming straight again and then convex as the thicker body of the blade cooled and contracted more slowly. If the hardening had gone well, the blade was then passed to a polisher, if not, it could be softened again and the process repeated.
Unlike the polish given to weapons in the West, the Japanese polished their blades to reveal their complex metallurgy. The process began by refining the shape and flattening the surfaces of the blade on a coarse whetstone using water as a lubricant. There then followed a series of ever-finer stones until all the scratches were eliminated. At this stage the hardened edge, the yakiba, and some other features of the metallurgy would be visible, but more was revealed using tiny flakes of special stones held under the thumb and rubbed on the blade with water. When complete, details of the hardened edge and point were visible, as was the grain on the surface, the result of the folding and welding during the preparation of the steel. It is from the shape and details of the hardened edge, the grain as well as the overall blade shape that an expert can determine the age of a blade, the maker’s tradition and in some case the actual smith who made it. If he had not done so before, the maker would then sign the blade, often adding his address, the date and other details. The blade would then be passed to the customer stored in a plain wood scabbard and hilt called a shirasaya. The earliest production of swords began in the province around the capital, but later spread to other centres. Experts recognise five main traditions called the gokaden, each having a distinctive shape, pattern of hardened edge and other details. They also call all swords made before 1600 kotō or ‘old swords’.
At this period long swords were worn slung edge downwards, on hangers on the left hip, in what is known as a tachi mounting. Scabbards were of magnolia wood, being made in two pieces carved out to fit the blade and lacquered to keep out moisture. The hilt, also of wood, needed to fit the tapered tang of the blade exactly to hold them firmly together. To prevent them jarring loose, a small peg of bamboo or horn was inserted through holes in the hilt and tang. Most hilts were then wrapped with the skin from a species of ray-fish that in turn was wrapped with a binding of leather or silk braid to improve the grip. To prevent them from splitting, the scabbard and hilt were provided with metal caps at the ends and other fittings. At this early date these fittings were often of iron, but on swords for court wear they could be more decorative and of softer metal such as gilded copper. Worn with the tachi was a short dirk or dagger called a tantō carried thrust through the sash on the left. It became customary for the samurai to always wear two swords, one long and one short, other classes of society being allowed only a short-sword.
The style of warfare that these early samurai practiced was that of mounted archery, their armour being specifically designed for this purpose. Known as ō-yoroi, or ‘great armour’ it was of a construction now called lamellar; that is made up from rows of small scales of iron or rawhide laced together with leather thongs, the rows then being laced to each other with leather or silk braid. Because of Japan’s often-humid climate the scales needed to be heavily lacquered to protect them from moisture. The helmet of an o-yoroi, or kabuto, consisted of an iron bowl or hachi made from a number of triangular plates fastened together with rivets having large prominent heads. At the apex was a large hole, the tehen, through which the wearer pulled the excess of a tall soft cap worn in lieu of a lining. Later helmets had permanent textile linings that lifted the bowl off the head to reduce concussion when struck. Attached to the lower edge was a conical lamellar neckguard or shikoro whose outer ends are turned back to protect the face from arrows; a feature called fukigayeshi that continued to be included on later helmets, becoming small tabs having no purpose other than to display the wearer’s heraldry. Attached to the front of the helmet bowl was a small, almost vertical peak designed to clear the bowstring, often carrying a pair of horn-like ornaments called kuwagata.
The body or dō of an ō-yoroi was in two parts; the right side being protected by a solid iron plate, covered with decorated leather, that was tied to the body before the rest was put on. Protecting the front, left side and back were four rows of lamellar with extensions up the front and back connected by shoulder straps. The entire front was covered with a panel of leather to stop the bowstring snagging on the scales. Fastened to the lower edge of the cuirass were four trapezoidal shaped panels of lamellar called kusazuri or ‘grass-rubbing’. When mounted these covered the saddle at the front and back and hung over the thighs on either side. Because both hands were needed to shoot a bow, it was impractical to use a shield so instead two large rectangular shoulder-guards called sode were fastened to the shoulder straps of the dō, and held in position by a system of silk cords fastened to a large bow on the back of the dō. Initially the armour had no limb armour other than a pair of tubular shinguards called suneate, but by the 12th century a pair of armoured sleeves called kote were added to the assembly. The retainers of the samurai wore a simpler armour called a dō-maru, also lamellar, that wrapped around the body and overlapped under the right arm. To make walking easier the kusazuri of dō-maru were divided into six or more sections.
Over the next few centuries mounted archery declined and fighting on foot became more common, especially after the two attempted invasions by the Mongols in 1274 and 1281. Because the ō-yoroi made walking difficult, the samurai began to wear a better quality version of the dō-maru, adding to it the helmet, shoulder guards and limb armour of the ō-yoroi. By this time the scales of armours had become smaller, the standing rivets on the helmet had become smaller and more numerous, whilst the fukigayeshi had folded backwards, lying almost flat on the shikoro. Fighting on foot exposed more of the legs to attack and it became usual to wear some protection for the thighs. Sometime it took the form of a pair of baggy shorts with plates sewn on, or on later armours a divided apron like defence called a haidate.
By the late 14 century a new style of armour appeared called a haramaki that resembled a dō-maru except that the opening was at the back, covered by a separate narrow plate. Since fighting was now almost entirely on foot, the number of sections of kusazuri were increased further to make movement easier, and the conical shikoro became almost flat to give greater movement to the arms. Although some continued to wear the large sode associated with the ō-yoroi and dō-maru, a new smaller type of sode was introduced.
By the early 15th century the central authorities had grown weak and forces outside of Kyoto were gaining power. Conflict broke out in 1467 when a dispute over who should become the next shogun started 10 years of urban warfare that left Kyoto in ruins. Nobles from all over the country brought their armies to the capital, leaving their estates in the hands of deputies. When the fighting eventually died out, the nobles found their lands had been taken over by those they had left in charge. With their armies decimated and exhausted the nobles were unable to recover them. The Japanese refer to this as gekokujo or ‘those below overthrowing those above’. It marks the end of the period of the aristocratic samurai and the transfer of power to country samurai who became known as daimyo or ‘Great landowners’.
With the central government almost powerless, fighting broke out between the samurai and groups called ikki, often made up of Buddhists and their supporters. At the same time the daimyo were also fighting each other to increase their lands and power. It was the beginning of some 150 years of widespread warfare called the Sengoku Jidai or ‘The Age of the Country at War’. For the first few decades arms and armour changed little, but it was expensive and slow to produce. Military equipment was now needed in larger quantities as the scale of fighting increased. The new daimyo also had new ideas about how warfare should be conducted. Unlike the old aristocratic samurai who fought as units with their retainers, the daimyo were prepared to recruit anyone as a way of increasing the size of their armies. As a result, farmers, peasants and even craftsmen joined as a way of bettering their lot. These peasant soldiers, known as ashigaru, were at first poorly equipped and poorly led but it was soon realised they had the advantage of being able to be used as tactical units. One problem was how to arm them. The traditional weapons of the samurai were expensive and took years of practice to master. The answer lay in the simple spear or yari, that in an emergency might be just a length of bamboo cut of at an angle to make a point. Before long ashigaru units appeared on battlefields equipped with a sword, a spear and a simple armour consisting of a cuirass, a conical hat or jingasa of iron or rawhide, a pair of kote and suneate.
The introduction of the spear caused a number of changes to the samurai’s armour, now called tosei gusoku or ‘modern armour’. Rows of scales gave way to horizontal plates, which in the case of dō needed to be fitted with hinges to allow it to be opened to put on. There were two main types: those with a single hinge under the left arm that tied on the right were called ni mai dō, or ‘two section cuirasses’. Those with four hinges dividing the dō into five sections: front, left side, back and two half sections that overlapped were called go mai dō. Both types generally had the pins of the hinges removable so the dō could be taken apart for ease of storage and transport.
Traditional dō terminated at the waist causing the whole weight to hang on the shoulders. Tosei dō had an extra row added to the lower edge that not only protected the lower abdomen better but allowed them to sit on the hips and distribute the weight more evenly. Previously the number of sections in the kusazuri, now called gessan, had increased to 10 or more sections to give the greatest freedom to the legs. Although desirable, the gaps between the sections were an easy target for a spearman so the number of sections were reduced to six or seven. Similarly the shikoro of the helmet that had become almost flat to give freedom to the arms left the neck vulnerable. Those helmets supplied with the new armours had shikoro that hung close to the head to make it difficult to thrust a spear inside. These structural changes were accompanied by a simplification in how the armour was laced. On a lamellar armour almost the whole surface was covered with lacing that absorbed water when it rained, was difficult to dry out and keep clean. This kebiki style was replaced by pairs of lacing spaced along each row called sugake lacing. Simplification went even further with decorative leathers and other ornamental features being discarded as having no function and simply adding to the weight.
Changes were also taking place to the sword. Many still wore tachi, but swords were needed in quantity to equip the increased number of troops and replace those damaged in action. Some centres like Osafune in the province of Bizen, although continuing to produce superb blades, also produced cheap serviceable swords called kazu uchi mono, or ‘bundled swords’ on an almost production line basis. Most ashigaru were issued with these cheap swords with simple iron mounts worn thrust edge upwards through the sash on left hip. Being long, tachi were not easy to use in a tight formation of troops and the samurai began to adopt a shorter heavier blade called an uchigatana worn like the swords carried by the ashigaru. Swords worn in this way proved to be more convenient in use and replaced the tachi for everyday wear, relegating the tachi for wear on formal occasions.
Whilst some daimyo managed to increase their territories by conquest, none managed to gain a sufficient power-base to attempt to conquer the whole country. This was to change when in 1543 a Chinese ship took shelter off the island of Tanegashima in a storm. On board were three Portuguese merchants who had with them matchlock guns produced at their trading post in Goa in India. The local daimyo managed to buy one of the guns and had his swordsmith make copies that he gave to his relatives, spreading knowledge of them to other parts of the country. Almost immediately production of these new weapons began and within five years another daimyo could boast of a bodyguard of 500 gunners. Although expensive, farsighted commanders realised this was the ideal weapon with which to arm the ashigaru. With a few weeks training, they could produce troops capable of defeating the most powerful conventional armies.
It was not long before more Portuguese arrived and began trading in goods imported from Europe and other Asian countries. Exotic textiles, especially Chinese brocades were in great demand as was, to a lesser extent, woollen cloth which found favour for making jinbaori, a kind of sleeveless surcoat worn over armour. Following the merchants came Jesuit priests who rapidly gained Japanese converts, especially on Kyushu. European priests also organised the first Japanese diplomatic mission to Europe during which the first Japanese arms and armour were given as gifts to European royalty. In due course the Portuguese were joined by the Spanish, the Dutch and English who all set up trading posts on Kyushu, importing exotic goods and exporting copper, lacquer ware and porcelain.
The introduction of the gun brought about profound changes to armour. When hit by a bullet the scales of lamellar armour shattered and together with fragments of lacing, were driven into the wound. Almost all samurai now had their armours made from plates, sometimes of iron with a hard steel facing or of rawhide faced with iron; in both cases in an attempt to find a bullet-proof combination. For those who wanted to retain the appearance of scale armour, the plates could be modelled with lacquer and laced to look like a row of scales; a construction known as kiritsuke kozane. The older helmets made from multiple plates were found to break along the joins between the plates when struck by a bullet so helmet bowls were devised made from fewer, larger plates. One of the most common varieties of the new helmets was the zunari kabuto which has a long central plate running from front to back over the head with additional plates on each side. Being almost devoid of brightly coloured lacing and other decoration, armours could still be made distinctive by being lacquered in bright colours or decorated with painted devices without adding to the weight. Another way in which the wearer of an armour could make himself distinctive was to add ornate crests to his helmet or to add fantastic creations made from lacquered wood, leather and paper to a basic zunari helmet. These helmets, called harikaki kabuto, could represent animal’s heads, plant forms, inanimate objects or simply some fantastic shape. Most armours now had fittings on the backplate that could be used to hold a bamboo pole that carried a flag or to display some form of large ornament attached to a pole. These sashimono allowed commanders to follow the movement of their troops during a battle.
With fluttering flags and gilded crests, the daimyo and their armies fought each other in battle after battle. By the intelligent use of gunners, a daimyo called Oda Nobunaga, destroyed the power of the Buddhist monasteries and conquered province after province. He was assassinated in 1582 whilst resting in a temple in Kyoto by one of his own generals. His avenger, another of his generals called Hashiba Hideyoshi, took over his armies and eventually gained control of the whole country. Being of peasant stock, Hideyoshi was unable to take the title of Shogun, being granted instead the title of Kampaku or ‘Regent’ by the emperor and being given the name Toyotomi. Faced with a country filled with warriors who had known no other life but fighting, Toyotomi Hideyoshi set about consolidating the peace. In 1588 he sent inspectors around the country to disarm all those who were not of samurai class. His next problem was to deal with the samurai. This he did by giving them some fighting to do; not on Japanese soil but to conquer China by way of Korea. In 1592 an invasion force of some 158,000 men was launched that was so successful it was occupying most of the Korean peninsular within three months. The Japanese were not sailors however, and Korean warships constantly disrupted the supply lines with the result that the advance into China stalled. A second attempt in 1597 was launched with similar results during which Hideyoshi died in his vast castle at Osaka, leaving a young son Hideyori in the care of six military and six civil guardians.
Peace between the guardians did not last and it was not long before the whole country polarised between two rivals. In the East was Tokugawa Ieyasu, an old ally of Oda Nobunaga, and in the West one of Hideyoshi’s civil guardians Ishida Mitsunari. By 1600 it was inevitable that war would break out again. The two mighty armies totalling over 200,000 met on a damp misty morning at a crossroads in the tiny village of Seki ga Hara. Ishida Mitsunari had stationed allies in the mountains around the village and positioned himself at the head of the valley. Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Eastern army in the valley itself seemed trapped but had held secret talks with some of the Western army persuading them to defect. Although a close run thing, Tokugawa Ieyasu won the day and like Hideyoshi before him set about consolidating his position. Three years later Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed Shogun, the beginning of a dynasty based on his castle-town of Edo that was to last 250 years.
During the battle and the following months some 80 lords were either killed or had their territories confiscated. Others were forced to move to lands surrounded by Tokugawa allies. Laws were passed that enforced the stratification of society and prevented movement between the classes. At the top were the military class, the buke, which included the Shogun, the daimyo and the different grades of samurai. Below them, in theory, were farmers who produced food but who in reality lived miserable lives little better than slavery. Next were the craftsmen who produced things on which society depended and finally at the base were the merchants who produced nothing and existed by making a profit from others. Outside of this system were priests, doctors and the unclean; people like executioners, leather workers or those who handled the dead.
One problem remained that could threaten Tokugawa supremacy and that was Toyotomi Hideyori who was nearing adulthood was attracting support from those samurai who had been on the losing side at Seki ga Hara. The Tokugawa also noted that the Catholic priests were also giving their support the Toyotomi claim. In 1614 the Tokugawa moved with a force of 164,000 men on Osaka castle. This mighty fortress was surrounded by some 8km of walls, had 124 corner towers and moats 120m wide. The Tokugawa forces set up cannon and began weeks of bombardment that had little effect on the castle. With winter approaching, Ieyasu realised it was futile to carry on with the attack, calling instead for a peace agreement in which Hideyori agreed not to challenge Tokugawa rule. As Ieyasu marched his main force back to Edo, a group of Tokugawa troops were left behind who began pulling down the outer walls and filling in the moats. When the Toyotomi Hideyori objected, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s response was that the walls were no longer needed, as they were now friends. The following summer Ieyasu attacked again leading to Hideyori committing suicide and the castle falling into Tokugawa hands. With the last threat to Tokugawa rule eliminated, Ieyasu returned to his retirement home in Sumpu where he died peacefully aged 73.
The involvement of the Catholics with the Toyotomi and other political matters gave great concern to the Tokugawa. Their first move was to ban them from Edo, but by the 1630’s they were persecuting both the Europeans and Japanese converts everywhere. Eventually all foreigners were expelled from the country and all Japanese were forbidden to either leave or re-enter the country if abroad. The only exception to this was a small Dutch trading colony housed on an artificial island in Nagasaki harbour that was allowed a limited amount of trade. Japan was now sealed off from the world, a condition called sakoku.
In civilian dress the samurai now wore their long swords, with the name shortened to katana, edge upwards thrust through their sash on the left hip. Many still wore them with a tantō but it was becoming common to wear them with a sword of intermediate length (60.6 – 30.3cm) called a wakizashi. These were mounted like the katana and for those who could afford the expense, the katana and wakizashi were made as a matching pair called a daisho. Initially some non-samurai tried wearing swords that were just below the official length of a long sword (60.6cm) in a full length katana scabbard but the Tokugawa soon banned this practice and from the 1680’s wakizashi were limited to a length of 38cm.
Another requirement that Tokugawa Ieyasu had introduced to limit the possibility of insurrection was the requirement that the daimyo attend his court on a regular basis. This was organised on a more formal basis by his son Hidetada and grandson Iemitsu. Every daimyo had to spend half his time at the Shogun’s court and to maintain a mansion in Edo in which his wife and children had to live, becoming in effect hostages whilst the daimyo was in his territory. The great processions to and from the capital, known as daimyo gyoretsu, became a major feature of life under Tokugawa rule. Daimyo vied with each other to put on the finest displays, their retainers being dressed in special costumes and carrying weapons, imitating an army marching to war. One of the wealthiest daimyo was the Maeda family of Kaga province who had built up a vast income from gold and silver mines as well as by trading with the Dutch. On occasions their marches involved some 3,000 men although 2,000 was more common. Typically the procession was made up from over 1,000 samurai of which 185 were immediate retainers and 850 were more distant vassals. Attending these were 686 servants and pages, 286 grooms, handymen, cooks and administrative staff. They brought with them 32 horses from Kaga and hired a further 188 from the various post stations on the way. To accommodate these retinues, inns and post stations were built at intervals along the road systems leading to Edo.
As the memories of war receded, decorative details began to be added to armour. Stencilled leathers re-appeared covering the peak of helmets and the upper plates of the dō as were ornate gilded plaques. Sleeves and haidate began once again to be covered with brocades rather than the more practical hemp cloth whilst multiplate helmets re-appeared now that the need for protection against bullets was no longer a necessity. Before long older features such as spreading neckguards and large sode were being added. The daimyo gyoretsu was seen as an army marching to battle and as near to military action that most samurai experienced. In reality most of their lives were spent as administrators, although they still had to own armour and weapons and were supposed to practice the martial arts, something the Tokugawa issued constant reminders about. This move for evermore decorative armours coincided with a yearning amongst the military for the glories of their past. Copies of ancient styles of armour and weapons were produced that at first were wildly inaccurate, but gradually almost perfect copies of o-yoroi, do-maru and haramaki were being made for wealthy clients. At the same time a group of swordsmiths looked back to the blades of the koto era and attempted to reproduce them. These copies, known as shinshintō were often of exceptional quality but never quite managed to equal the swords of the past.
Freed from the demands of the battlefield, and with the encouragement of rich merchants, the makers of sword mounts moved away from the austere styles of the past and developed techniques and materials that allowed them to create masterpieces of metalwork. For centuries a group called the Goto had created fittings for the court made from an alloy of copper and gold called shakudo, that patinated to black, enhanced with dragons and other decorations in gold. Using shakudo and other alloys that patinated to other colours, metal workers created sword fittings that depicted scenes from history and legend, animals, plants and inanimate objects in such minute detail as to almost defy belief. For those who could afford the cost, it was not uncommon to have sets of mounts for a blade to use on different occasions or even for different seasons of the year. Merchants competed to own swords with the finest mounts, sometimes of solid gold. The Tokugawa issued laws to try and prevent this conspicuous consumption to little effect. A ban on wearing silk clothing by non-samurai was circumvented by wearing hemp kimono with silk linings whilst a ban on gold sword mounts was avoided by lacquering them black.
By the early 19th century several attempts were made by various maritime nations to break Japan’s isolation. Matters came to a head when the Dutch King sent the Shogun a letter revealing that the United States was planning to send a fleet of ships to demand a trading treaty. In the ensuing panic at what was seen as a potential invasion, harbour defences were modernised and strengthened by cannon bought from the Dutch and the more decorative armours were put aside in favour of modernised copies of the armours of the Sengoku era. Some clans, especially on Kyushu and the tip of Honshu, ignored the law and acquired modern guns, training rifle brigades to attack the Tokugawa who they still regarded as their enemies because of their defeat at Seki ga Hara in 1600. When the Americans finally did arrive the assembled samurai dressed in their new armours and armed with spears, bows and ancient matchlocks stood impotent as Marines armed with the latest rifles drilled and paraded on their sacred soil.
Within a short while supporters of the Shogun, who had signed treaties with the Westerners, were fighting those who wanted the foreigners expelled. This brief Boshin war lasted until the Shogun abdicated and the Emperor Meiji finally took control of the country; the first emperor to do so in some 700 years. There followed a series of reforms that included renaming Edo as Tokyo and the abolition in 1876 of the feudal system by edict. Overnight the makers of armours, swords and their mounts became redundant. Former samurai, who no longer received their stipends, were reduced to earning a living. Many, too proud to work, reverted to selling their treasured armours and weapons to curio and antique shops to be bought by the growing numbers of tourists from the West. For a while some craftsmen managed to keep their art alive by producing superb items designed to appeal to Western taste, particularly tantō with lavish mounts in silver, but in reality their reason for being had ended. Algernon Mitford, a British diplomat saw the abdicated Shogun ride into Osaka castle for the last time and wrote that he was accompanied by:
‘.. warriors dressed in the old armour of the country, carrying spears, bows and arrows, falchions curiously shaped, with sword and dirk, who looked as if they had stepped out of some old picture of the Genpei wars in the Middle Ages. Their jinbaori, not unlike herald’s tabards, were as many-coloured as Joseph’s coat. Hideous masks of lacquer and iron, fringed with portentous whiskers and mustachios, crested helmets with wigs from which long streamers of horsehair floated to their waists, might strike terror into any enemy. They looked like the hobgoblins of a nightmare.’
A thousand years of samurai rule had ended.