This February half term, why not take the opportunity to come to Leeds and experience a glimpse of the world of the Japanese warrior? The Royal Armouries holds a wonderfully rich collection of Japanese objects, and many of these are on show in the Oriental Gallery.
Through these pieces, we can see how the distinctive arms and armour of the famous samurai evolved over the centuries, in conjunction with new developments in battlefield tactics and wider political, social and economic change.
A quick summary cannot do the world of Japanese arms and armour justice, but for a whistle-stop tour of some of the essential points please read on! We start with the Japanese horse archer with his elite warrior status, wearing his flamboyant lamellar o-yoroi or ‘great armour’ with the colourful silk lacing and large shoulder defences, his kabuto (helmet) with the spreading neckguard, and carrying the unique Japanese longbow (yumi) fashioned for use on horseback.
These horse archers prevailed on the Japanese battlefield until around the 14th century, by which point the emphasis on large bodies of infantry was increasing, and fighting on foot with staff weapons such as the naginata (glaive) and the yari (spear) became more common. As combat techniques evolved, the warrior lords and their retainers began to wear smaller, less elaborate styles of armour such as the do maru and the haramaki, which permitted greater freedom of movement – we have examples of both these styles of armour on show in the gallery in Leeds.
In the mid-16th century the Portuguese arrived in Japan and brought matchlock firearms with them. The Japanese daimyo (nobles), who by this point were embroiled in the protracted civil wars known generally as sengoku jidai or ‘age of the country at war’, adopted this new technology with enthusiasm, and the Japanese matchlock (teppo) became a crucial weapon on the battlefield. This was famously proven at the battle of Nagashino in 1575, when the arquebusiers of the combined forces of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu annihilated the cavalry charge of Takeda Katsuyori. The new prevalence of firearms and the prolonged siege warfare that characterised the civil wars prompted further developments in armour. Laced rows of individual lamellar scales were reduced in favour of constructions incorporating solid plates, which provided better protection against bullets, and much experimentation was conducted to find a way of producing bullet-proof armour. Armour was simplified and the lacing was reduced in order to make it more practical during extended periods of warfare, as well as quicker and cheaper to produce for large numbers of troops.
Once the civil wars were brought to a final close in the early 1600s by the victories of Tokugawa Ieyasu, though, the period of closely monitored peace known as the Edo period descended on Japan and lasted until the mid-19th century. A close eye was kept on the buke (warrior class) in an effort to stamp out all opportunities for insurrection. External influence was reduced to a minimum as the Shogunate shut down the majority of foreign trade amid concerns about Western ambitions within the country. A feudal chain of obligation between vassals, lords and ultimately the Shogun was codified in the ideal of Bushido or the ‘Way of the Warrior’, which reinforced the necessity of absolute personal loyalty and obedience. The glory days of the past must have seemed a long way away to the samurai, and this nostalgia was shown in part through the continued importance of arms and armour, not so much as functional equipment any more, but more for the implications of rank, status and honour that the pieces conveyed on their owners.
For example, the right to wear two swords, the katana and the wakizashi, at the same time, was restricted to members of the military class; those who were ranked lower in the social order, such as merchants, were only permitted to wear a short sword. Old styles of armour and copies of famous ancient armours became fashionable again; several of the armours on show in the Oriental Gallery in Leeds were made during the Edo period, but have archaic stylistic features such as individual lamellar scales or the big shoulder guards and neckguards that were popular during the times when o-yoroi were worn. Martial arts involving weapons including the sword and staff weapons such as the naginata developed into more regulated forms; instead of being fundamentally a practical way to prepare for battlefield combat, the emphasis shifted to honing the skills, principles and mindset that were meant to embody the ideal warrior who was loyal to his lord.
Japan emerged from its period of self-imposed isolation during the mid-19th century, and embarked on an ambitious programme of rapid modernisation. By the twentieth century, Japan was competing with the military technology of America and Europe. However, certain cultural practices ensured that traditional Japanese arms and armour remained current and relevant. In Japanese religion, there is a strong belief that the kami or ancestral spirits continue to live on in the possessions owned by the deceased before they died, and this is thought to be particularly true of a warrior’s sword and armour. As a result, medieval armour and weaponry is often perfectly preserved, as the pieces are treasured through the generations as family heirlooms or passed on to shrines as offerings, so that the kami continue to be honoured and ensure good fortune for their descendents. It was often for this reason that Japanese officers in WWII had their ancestral, centuries-old blades fitted out with modern military issue mounts; in outward appearance their swords would conform to the 20th-century standard of uniformity and modernity, but they could still carry their medieval ancestors into battle with them. The ‘soul of the samurai’ still had power, and indeed it lives on today in the reverence that is bestowed on historical objects and the warrior culture connected with them, and the hold that the Samurai still claim over the popular imagination.