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The Way of the Warrior: The Art of Samurai Armor

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Samurai Armor. A full set of Samurai armor. Metal, Japan, 17th century.

17th century Samurai helmet. [Akasaka Collection: Gallery 14/212.223.3892; click image for detailed view]

By the late 19th century, the “Age of the Samurai” was at an end. Ironically, it was members of the samurai class themselves who engineered its downfall–and laid the path for modern Japan. Former samurai were among the leaders of the Meiji Restoration, which abolished the feudal system and the ruling warrior class with it. It was only then that bushido, the “way of the warrior,” came into prominence. Samurai values–honor, discipline, loyalty even unto death, became the blueprint for the new Japanese society. Samurai armor became the most visible symbol of the warrior way.

  Samurai Armor. A full set of Samurai armor. Metal, Japan, 17th century.  H:  33″  W:  18″

A full set of Samurai armor. Metal, Japan, 17th century. H: 33″ W: 18″ Akasaka Collection [Gallery 14/212.223.3892; click image for detailed view]

Samurai rose to power in the 12th century with Japan’s first military dictatorship, the shogunate. Shogun were more powerful than the emperor, and that power was enforced by samurai, a word which means “to serve.” For centuries, samurai fought for their warring feudal lords. Their armor was designed for many purposes: to protect, to inspire fear, to announce who they are.

17th Century Samurai Armor

Imposing 17th century Samurai helmet decorated with antlers. Akasaka Collection [Gallery 14/212.223.3892; click image for detailed view]

By the 17th century Tokugawa shogunate, the country was finally at peace. The 17th century samurai armor displayed in this post were likely mostly emblems of power. Yet the armor is built for battle, with the helmets featuring intricate menpo (face guard), designed to both protect the wearer and present a fearsome face to the enemy.

Full Set of 17th Century Samurai Armor

Samurai Armor. Metal, Japan, 17th century. H: 35″ W: 20″ Akasaka Collection [Gallery 14/212.223.3892; click image for detailed view]

The highly stylized breastplates, chiefly woven of leather and metal plates, were designed to withstand hails of arrows, as well as allow the warrior mobility to fight. Odoshi (armor lacing) was a careful artistic process, the patterns and colors of each suit announcing the warrior’s allegiances.

Full Set of 20th Century Samurai Armor

Intricate 20th century samurai armor. Akasaka Collection [Gallery 14/212.223.3892; click image for detailed view

The ceremonial aspects takes center stage in 20th century samurai armor design. Woven of cloth, the beautiful suit above was clearly not made for war. It is an artistic homage to the centuries-long tradition that made Japan what it is. Of the “way of the warrior,” historian Arthur May Knapp writes, “The samurai of thirty years ago had behind him a thousand years of training in the law of honor, obedience, duty, and self-sacrifice…It was not needed to create or establish them.”

Samurai Armor. Metal, Japan, 20th century.

Full view of the armor above. H: 35″ W: 20″ Akasaka Collection [Gallery 14/212.223.3892; click image for detailed view]

The “way of the warrior” is really then a code of conduct for modern Japan, inspiring to the world at large. It is kept alive through emblems such as samurai armor, and equally intricately designed samurai dolls, such as the stunning one below. To inquire about any of the pieces or to learn more, contact Akasaka Gallery/212.223.3892/printjapan@yahoo.com.

Full set of Samurai armor on doll. Wood and paper, Japan, 20th century.  H:  20″  W:  8″

Full set of Samurai armor on doll. Wood and paper, Japan, 20th century. H: 20″ W: 8″. Akasaka Collection [Gallery 14/212.223.3892; click image for detailed view

Sources: History.com, Cranbrook.edu, HolyMtn.com