Spotlight On … the Samurai

Written by Victoria Green

A bit like our founding father, John Waterer, I fear that I may be turning into a polymath. A jack of all trades, and master of none. This is not necessarily a bad thing, given that I have gradually accumulated an odd and varied database of potential Mastermind topics. One of the best parts of working with the National Leather Collection is this opportunity for constant learning and discovery. The research, blogging and conversations with those of greater leather knowledge which all feeds back into a better understanding of the collection, and the incredible treasures within it.

I was lucky enough recently to pay a visit to David Thatcher, a Katchushi restorer of Japanese armour and all-round samurai encyclopaedia. Without him, this blog would not have been possible as my knowledge of Japanese armour was infinitesimal to say the least.

I hadn’t spent any time with our samurai armour before it was hauled out of storage in anticipation of London Craft Week 2018. The museum has been working closely in collaboration with Bill Amberg Studio on ‘Leather – Then & Now’. This exhibition pairs historical leather objects with their modern counterparts, in a display of evolution, craftsmanship and good design. What I discovered was something quite incredible.

© National Leather Collection
© National Leather Collection

Now, anyone who has watched any samurai films will have a reasonable (if glamourised) idea of what and who the samurai were. For the uninitiated, samurai were the military nobility and officer caste of medieval Japan. Samurai were usually associated with their clan and their lord (daimyō), and were trained in military tactics and strategy. Samurai accounted for less than 10% of Japan’s population but their culture still endures today, all over the world.

Japanese armour was made from a number of different materials, including iron, leather, silk and paper. Generally, it is constructed from small overlapping scales made of either iron or leather (nerigawa), connected to each other by macramé cords (odoshi) made from braided silk. Noble families would have odoshi made with different patterns and colours of thread, sometimes using in excess of 100 strands of silk. Constructing this cord was meticulous work, and could take many months to produce the amount needed for just one suit of armour. Finally, the armour would be brightly lacquered to protect it from the effects of the climate.

The pieces of Japanese armour in the National Leather Collection form an almost-complete set of tatami-do (folding) armour from the late edo-jidai, 18th Century. Upon assembling all of the armour on a stand, we found that we had a helmet, cuirass, thigh armour, arm armour and shin guards. There was also a pair of woven sandals (waraji) and a modified armpit guard (wakibiki).

In absence of facial armour (menpo), David Thatcher kindly lent us a mask from his own collection to enhance the display, which is the one you can see in the images. It was decided that this suit of armour had belonged to someone of importance; it was not the kind of armour that would have been worn by someone of low rank.

David also discovered a couple of quirky features that make this set of armour unique.

Firstly, the helmet (chochin kabuto) has the lacing on the inside. Collapsible helmets of the Edo period were usually laced on the outside, all the way from the top to the bottom. On this helmet, the lacing is only visible on the lower portions.

Secondly, our samurai seems to have undertaken some custom modifications with his armour. Curiously, the armpit guards had been stitched together. Typically, these guards are two rectangles of cloth covered in chain armour, with cords connected that allow them to hang from the shoulder. Instead, our wakibiki had been joined to form what could only have been used as a shoulder guard.There could have been a number of reasons for this. Perhaps it was a case of knowledge being passed down incorrectly during this period of samurai decline? We shall never know the true answer.

The gold emblem featured across the armour (which, as David pointed out, looks like an upside-down Mickey Mouse) is likely associated with the Sanada clan of Shinano.

Tatami-do was designed to be portable, and can be folded into an armour box (yoroi hitsu). Even the helmet is designed and laced in a way that means it can lay flat. During the Edo Period, lightweight, portable and secret hidden armours became popular as, though the samurai were in decline, there was still a need for personal protection. Civil discord, duels, assassinations and peasant revolts caused a rise in the use of ‘chain mail’ style armour, and armour that could be disguised under ordinary clothing.

Symbol of the Sanada clan of Shinano.

A different cuirass, demonstrating overlapping of nerigawa scales.

Photographed with thanks to David Thatcher.

This type of armour was introduced fairly late, after the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and the unification of Japan by the Tokugawa shogunate, which created an age of peace. As there had not been any warfare since the early 17th Century, samurai gradually lost their function during the Edo period. Samurai were still among the ruling class, but were increasingly becoming courtiers, bureaucrats and administrators rather than warriors. Samurai arms and armour became more of a symbolic emblem of power rather than functional equipment. Despite this, samurai still had he legal right to cut down any commoner who did not show the proper respect. This was called kiri-sute gomen or ‘right to strike’. It is clear that when the central government forced daimyōs to cut the size of their armies, unemployed rōnin (samurai without a lord or master) became a social problem.

The Edo Period was the last real period of samurai. After a last showing of the samurai in 1867, the samurai’s right to be the only armed force of Japan was abolished by Emperor Meiji in 1873 in favour of a modern, western-style, conscripted army. Samurai became shizoku and lost the right to wear a katana in public along with the ‘right to strike’.

The Meiji reforms had eroded away the essence of the samurai, forced to adapt in the face of US threats and a quickly modernising world. The armour and craft, however, continues to endure in the hands of incredibly talented craftsmen like David Thatcher. With this, we can set the scene of feudal Japan, and tell the story of a lost age.

We are now open every Wednesday from 10am – 4pm! Information on how to find us can be found here.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, then please consider showing us your support. Visit our support page to see how you can help.