Samurai Culture, Armor, Clothing, Accessories and History
In a culture like that of ancient Japan, outsiders during the time of the Samurai, were usually kept at a distance, if not ignored completely. Except in those rare cases where something so unusual occurs, that the norms get thrown out the window. This was the case with Yasuke, the First African Samurai, a story of cultural immersion. This is one interpretation of his life from my own research and studies.
The story of Yasuke…
Very little is known about the first African Samurai. What we do know is according to historical records, an Italian Jesuit missionary named Alessandro Valignano was the “Provincial of India” in 1574. He was later given the position of “Visitor to the Indies” by Pope Gregory XIII. His mission was to audit and support the Jesuit activity in China and Japan. During his first visit to Japan (1579 – 1582) he arrived with his publication “Catechismus Christianiae Fidei” and his entourage, which included a muscular, 6’ 2” African man. Almost nothing is known of this man other than he traveled with Valignano through India, China and now Japan. He was said to be well dressed, educated and spoke several languages, including some Chinese and Japanese. It is unclear if he was a body guard, slave, servant or indentured servant to Valignano. What is clear is that Valignano was primarily stationed in Goa, India which received supplies through the Portuguese trade port of Mozambique, Africa. This port was very well known for its slave trade and the Jesuits were known for having slaves.
It is important to note that before Valigano’s arrival most of Japan had been stuck in the turmoil of war since 1467. Just a few years before his arrival, around 1573, most of the fiefdoms had been brought under the control of the Daimyo Oda Nobunaga and his vassal Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
It is documented that in 1581 Valignano and his entourage arrived into the Imperial capital city of Japan, Kyoto. Their arrival caused a stir with rumors quickly spreading of a tall and mysterious, charcoal skinned man. The people were so excited to witness such a man that it was said they broke down the door of the Jesuit church just to see him. Japanese did not have any negative notions towards dark skinned people. In fact, many Japanese believed black-skin reflected the embodiment of the Buddha (in Japanese tradition). More so, this dark skinned man stood more than 1 foot taller then the average Japanese man.
Eventually the rumors and gossip grew so loud it reached the ear of Lord Nobunaga himself. He ordered the African man to be brought before him. At first he thought he might be a Portuguese trader who had painted his skin to trick the people. To confirm his suspicion, he had the African stripped to his waist and washed, in attempt to remove any paint. Upon realizing the man was naturally dark skinned, Lord Nobunage took a vested interest in him giving him the name “Yasuke”. This name is most likely a “Japanization” of his birth or Christian name. As Lord Nobunaga asked Yasuke many questions about his home country he was surprised to learn that Yasuke could speak Japanese.
Lord Nobunaga was so impressed with Yasuke, he requested him to join his clan as a samurai at which Yasuke deferred until he finished his commitment to Valignano. Lord Nobunaga gave Yasuke a travel-pass and enough money for him to return to Kyoto. After a short time, true to his word, Yasuke returned to Kyoto and entered the service of his new Lord. Instructed in the code of Bushido, Budo Martial Arts and Samurai warfare. Yasuke, became the first non-Japanese samurai in history and was awarded all the rights and privileges of his title. With his education, skill, size, strength, height and loyalty, Yasuke proved himself to be of great value to Lord Nobunaga and was given the prestigious position of personal body guard.
With Yasuke being so tall and dark skinned, he was quickly spotted on the battlefield. In Tenmokuzan, he had become revered as a ferocious warrior who possessed all the strength, speed and wit of a demon. On the battlefield he was feared and known as the “Black Demon”. Off the battlefield he was known as the “Dark Guardian” who watched over Lord Nobunaga and his family. Although there is no formal note of it, I am certain Yasuke played a role in defeating the Takeda clan. Which is how he earned his name “the Black Demon of Lord Nobunaga”.
Upon returning to Kyoto in 1582, Lord Nobunaga sent his forces north to continue fighting while he rested in a Buddhist temple of Honno-Ji, where Yasuke remained at his side. Now not on the battlefield, Yasuke took the roll of a “dark guardian” who watched over Oda and his family. However even the great Yasuke was not strong enough to protect Lord Nobunage when his retainer Akechi Mitsuhide rebelled against him, attacking the temple and killing Lord Oda Nobunaga.
Yasuke did manage to cut his way through the Mitsuhide’s men and was able to escape. He made his way to Nijo castle, where he swore to protect Nobunaga’s son, Oda Nobutada. Akechi Mitsuhide arrived just after Yasuke and immediately attacked Oda Nobutada’s forces who have just gathered the day before. Yasuke once again threw himself into the fray of battle, slaughtering many of Mitsuhide’s men. Overwhelmed Nobutada’s forces eventually fell and Yasuke was subdued, then captured. With no other choice, Nobutada accepted his defeat and committed seppuku, a ritual suicide to maintain his family’s honor.
There was some debate about what should become of Yasuke. Should he be forced to commit seppuku which was reserved specifically for samurai? Should he be executed? What to do? There was some debate if Yasuke was really a samurai as he was not Japanese. Maybe as he was forced or coerced into service of the Jesuits, he may have been coerced into service by Lord Nobunage. Maybe it was fate, maybe it was Akechi Mitsuhide’s contempt for Yasuke and not believing him to be a real Samurai or maybe it was the other generals who had grown to respect Yasuke and wanted him to live. But it was decided that his life would be spared if Yasuke swore never to touch a sword again. He returned to the Jesuits who praised God and welcomed him back to the church. However, it is not known which adventure he would choose. Return to work for the Jesuit, return to Africa or another land or perhaps, stay in Japan and live in peace amongst the Japanese in a monastery. There are stories of a small village with families that appeared to be of half Japanese, half African decent, but that is another story.
Best said by Leslie Nguyen-Okwu, “Although his samurai career was short-lived, Yasuke became the hero of Kuro-suke (くろ助), a children’s historical fiction book that won the Japanese Association of Writers for Children Prize in 1969. The book ends with Yasuke living to fight another day. But when he sleeps at night, he dreams of his parents in Africa and silently cries — the story of a valiant warrior triumphing against all odds, but also the story of a pained young man dropped into a world of strangers. His sacrifice, not his sword or slaughter, made him a true samurai.”
There are some things we know certain to be true, such as Japan is a country with a long history that honors tradition, bravery and loyalty. With the little known about Yasuke, some facts about him are quite certain. Yasuke was an educated, loyal, brave and honorable warrior of great strength and stature. These facts about Yasuke are undeniably true, as the mighty Daimyo Oda Nobunage broke with tradition by accepting Yasuke, a foreigner, into his clan and honoring him with the position of his protector. He will forever be remembered along with the other legendary Samurai of his time.
If you enjoyed my summary of the African Samurai, feel free to comment and join the discussion below. What stories about the Samurai have you found to be strange, mysterious or even completely baffling?
Lockley, T. Girard, G (2019) “African Samurai: The True Story of a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan”
Illustrated Religious Texts in the North of Europe, 1500-1800
Leslie Nguyen-Okwu “THE INCREDIBLE LEGEND OF THE FIRST BLACK SAMURAI”
Sangu is the term for the three principle armor parts which protect the extremities of the samurai. These parts include the kote, haidate and suneate. We’ve included the sode because we feel they are important in understanding the most elemental parts of Samurai armor. Learning about these parts is essential for understanding the functionality of a samurai gusoku (matching armor set).
In the early periods, the Samurai warriors mostly fought on horseback. Later, as ground infantry troops, changing their tactics as the warfare styles changed and evolved. These changes in tactics also affected the way they crafted and wore their armor. We are going to review some of the most basic parts, their function, appearance and the key elements which led to their evolution as well as effectiveness in combat.
We will review these essential armor parts in the same order in which they are donned.
Suneate: Shin Guards
The 14th century was a time of intense conflict, as a result many important armor advancements and additional items came into play. One of the armor pieces which came under development were the Suneate, or shin guards.
Four basic styles of Suneate:
- Kyahan Suneate (basic) – which is a simple cloth guard with splint plates.
- Shino Suneate (light) – these have splint plates connected by chainmail, cloth knee guards with kikko (metal hexagon plating) inside.
- Tsutsu Sunate, or Bishamon Sunate (medium) – these consist of three or more plates connected by the lacing and hinges, plus additional extensions with kikko to cover the knee.
- O-Tateage no Suneate (heavy) – this style would consist of either a single plate, or three plates laced/hinged or riveted together with a solid knee cup.
When putting on your suit of armor, the first step are the suneate. They can be as subtle as a cloth guard with simple shin plates, in the case of the Kyahan Suneate, or it can be a heavier, more complex combination of larger plates riveted together with a knee cup for added coverage and protection. It all depends on the Era and combat style which you wish to pursue. Learn More >>
Haidate: Thigh Armor
The haidate is a form of armored apron that ties around the waist or may hang from the Do itself, to protect the thighs while resting under the gessen (armored skirt). This is the second piece of armor donned by the samurai while dressing in their armor. As combat tactics changed from mounted combat to ground combat and scaling walls, so did the armor design. However haidate didn’t catch on easily.
Four basic styles of Haidate:
- Etchu Haidate – Haidate covered with only a sparse grid of mail and splints
- Hodo Haidate – Haidate that have the lower part of the armored portion divided into pendant sections
- Kusari Haidate – A mail and plate haidate
- Oda Haidate – Haidate of mail, with ikeda and knee plates resembling those at the elbow of oda gote
The haidate designs came advancing in design during the second half of the 14th century. This was, in part, due to the shorter lengths of the haramaki versions of Do chest plate armors. To add the necessary protection, the haidate, came into full production and use.
As the horseback to foot combat styles evolved, Samurai warriors needed a way to protect their thighs when mounted but something that could be easily discarded while on foot. Most samurai claimed that the haidate was added weight and refused to wear them while on foot. Eventually, their Daimyo won the argument when the amount of thigh wounds increased. It wasn’t long until the haidate became a permanent part of a samurai’s armor set.
Many warriors preferred to avoid anything that would hinder their speed and flexibility. As they became more of a necessity, they evolved into the essential tools of warfare by adding leg straps, iron plating, leather and even chainmail sections.
Sode: Shoulder Armor
Although not technically considered “sangu” one of the most iconic protective points of Samurai armor, is the sode. It was created to be a shoulder/arm guard which would protect this part of the body, by acting as a shield – while still allowing ease of movement for the warriors.
Four basic styles of Sode:
- Chu-Sode – a medium sized version of the O-sode which allows for greater ease when fighting on foot.
- Hiro sode – A shoulder guard which widens and flattens towards the bottom
- O-sode – a large shield-like design with long, broad, iron strips, held together with silk odoshi (lace). This style is well-suited for fighting on horseback.
- Tsubo sode – A sode that is curved towards the arm and narrows towards the bottom
The development and evolution of Sode armor came about based on warrior fighting styles. With the principal fighting style of the Samurai being mounted archer, the O-sode functioned as a shield. It was mounted on the shoulder so the warrior had both hands free to work his bow. It would not interfere with the string or with his style of sword fighting as long as it was worn properly. This was the perfect defense for mounted archers and protected them from missiles (i.e. arrows) while on horseback.
Each sode features an ornate brass fitting with ring on the back, or mid-section of the sode called “Byo no Kogai Kanamono”. A rope called “Midzu nomi no o” passes through these rings and tie to an ornately tied bow on the back of the Do (cuirass) called “age maki”. This prevents the sode from falling forward over the chest of the samurai warrior. A piece of hemp cloth, called “sode-jirushi,” was usually attached to this ring as well. It was colored or adorned with a mon (logo-like symbol) denoting clan, unit number and maybe even a name.
Over the centuries combat tactics changed and samurai started using different weapons on the battlefield that required more freedom of movement. The armorer’s began to adapt the sode to these changes reducing their size by half, making the “chu-sode”, and even a “ko-sode” which was even smaller. Regardless the size, the sode always was and will be an important part of the samurai’s armor set. Learn More >>
Kote: Armor Sleeves
The kote is basically an armored sleeve worn by the samurai to protect the outside of the arm during combat. There word kote is a general term, then a word is added to kote, making it a specific style of kote, the word becomes “gote” (go-tai). Although there are many styles of kote, most fit the same basic profile. Often made from hemp or silk, with attached armored plating. Coverage starts with the tekko (a plate covering the back of the hand), followed by the wrist covered with kusari (iron mail).
Five basic styles of Kote:
- Bishamon Gote – Armored sleeves that have a small, integral sode covering the upper arm
- Kusari Gote – A mail and plate kote
- Oda Gote – Kote with gourd shaped plates applied over the forearm and upper arm
- Shino Gote – Kote with splints over the forearm, sometimes connected by mail
- Tsutsu Gote – Kote in which the plates over the forearm are hinged or sewn to each other
The kusari then connects to armored plates, usually 4 to 6 splint like plates, that continue over the forearm to the elbow. These armor splints connect with more kusari and other smaller splint plates that continue up the triceps to the shoulder, where the armor finally terminates. The sleeves can be tied around the body or attached to the armor in various ways.
The inside section of the sleeves typically did not have any kusari, or armor plating, and was simply a continuation of the material to form a full sleeve, which was then laced together from wrist to armpit. The inside of the kote wasn’t armored. This was to avoid snagging and scratching of the Do. It is also important to know that the samurai wears a silk kimono with wide, drooping sleeves, which are wrapped around the arm. This extra silk material, when wrapped properly, acts as a cushion and extra protection against sharp blades and the pointed tips of enemy weapons.
Overall the kote gave strength and protection to the lower arm while allowing the warrior to parry strikes without hindering his movement or sensitivity. They were designed to be lightweight and, in some cases, could even be worn under their shirts and clothing for a more discreet form of protection. Learn More >>
About Iron Mountain Armor
By understanding the development and purpose of each Sangu (or element) of your suit of armor, you will gain a greater appreciation for their use. Ask us about our individually designed “sode jirushi’s” which you can customize according to your clan logos or symbols in order to help you and your clan stand apart while on the battlefield.
Here at Iron Mountain Armory, we strive to research original samurai armor so we can reproduce it the way it was meant to be. The result is a quality reproduction which matches the strength and functionality of the original samurai armor.
For newbie Samurai enthusiasts, the names and pieces of the armor suits can be confusing and even a bit overwhelming. Try to construct a mental picture, but at the same time mindfully realize the purpose and intent of each part. The designs are really quite incredible. First, in that they weigh less than traditional European armor of the same individual time periods. Secondly, they are also easy to repair and can absorb more of the impact while still allowing freedom of movement.
We are honored that you took the time to read our blog and hope you will check back frequently. More articles are in the works. We are working to raise awareness and understanding of the quality of the armor we recreate while helping our audience gain a greater understanding of Armor Parts use and potential.
Bottomly, Ian & Hopson, AP “Arms and Armor of the Samurai” (1988)
Turnbull, Stephen “Samurai: The story of Japans Greatest Warriors” (2004)
In the noble and mysterious world of ancient Japan, there are 5 Important Periods of Samurai Armor Genealogy. This is a basic overview for the beginning enthusiast who wants to dip his toe in the deep pond of Japanese Samurai Armor. We will go into greater detail and begin to form a more detailed picture for collectors and hobbyists.
Our goal is to help readers gain a greater appreciation for the history which has gone into the creation of our armor while also creating a context for the different styles we offer.
5 Periods of Samurai Armor Genealogy
As with any historical account there are a few factors which affect how we view and receive the five great periods of Japanese Samurai Armor Genealogy. They are the following:
- The victors write history. Conflicts arise as the accounts become inflated and overblown by victors telling what are essentially embellished “fishing stories.”
- Limited historical evidence. Later archaeological finds from the Edo and Meiji Period, are in much better shape than what we have from the Heian Era. Much of what we know today about samurai armor is re-translated texts and books that are constantly being re-written.
- Things change over time. The many samurai armor pieces in museums and collections have some mixed and matched parts and very likely been altered in one form or another over the centuries. During the Edo period many armor parts where altered to meet modern fashions and later restoration work likely altered them yet again. So it is rare to find a gusoku (full matching samurai armor set) unaltered from the Sengoku Era.
Conflicts of Bushido Code. In Hollywood and storytelling, ideals and values are often romanticized and exaggerated. This is what captures our imaginations and causes us to fall in love with the culture. The reality is often much more complex because we are, after all, human.
Our discussion here, will give you the fast and dirty overview of Samurai Armor Genealogy, while taking into account the previous points we discussed.
Basic Samurai Armor Terms:
- Kabuto: Helmet
- Do: Chest armor
- Yoroi: Suit of armor
- Tosei: A modern armor set evolved from ~1540, post-European influence.
- Gendai: Any armor item produced after 1868.
For more relevant Samurai terms see our Glossary page.
Heian Era (794 ~ 1185 A.D.)
This early era was characterized by the “lamellar” style. It was a basic and essentially weak armor style which was backed up by a strict and traditional moral code. In this era, landlords fought each other one-on-one in situations based on neighborly conflicts, offense and desire for riches, power etc. Much of the attack styles relied on a lord arriving on horseback with retainers who carried his armor and came to his assistance as needed or able.
The armor of this period is typically big, bulky, and based on Pig Iron. This alloy was very weak and fairly easy to break when struck hard enough. The pieces were usually held together by leather or silk lacing. During this period, rivets and rudimentary hinges hadn’t yet been incorporated into armor craft. At this same time, glory was the goal with prizes being awarded according to the rank of the person killed in battle. Pedigrees and achievements were shouted to opponents to initiate the conflict, and melee style tactics ruled the day. Learn More >>
Muromachi Era (1336 ~ 1573 A.D.)
As the Muromachi period came into force, there were distinct changes in the way the Samurai fought. At this point they had suffered some tremendous defeats at the hands of the Mongols and began to change tactics. Also, the warlords had more foot soldiers to do their bidding and avoided confrontations a bit more than in the Heian period.
During this period the armor became focused on movement and flexibility via scales which could be small triangular shapes or slightly larger and rectangular. The warrior would wear a “Iyozane,” or “Kozane”, or scale armor. They also used a type of chest plate which would wrap around the front of the torso and tie in the back, called a haramaki. Armor from this period was very costly, difficult and time consuming to make. The general appearance was colorful and included family symbols of importance. Gendai reproductions mimic the original appearance in quality and usability. Crafters may use modern techniques to make it more economical, and accessible to common collectors and martial artists
Sengoku Era (1467 ~ 1603 A.D.)
This era, also known as Warring States, was brutal and full of social upheaval. The armor reflects this as it becomes much more simple with darker colors and more focused on functionality over appearance. Towards the end of this period there was more interaction with Europe and the influence is reflected by some of the newer combat styles and armor types.
Along with these new combat styles and armor types, the costs are diminished by better technology and a faster production process. Instead of scales, bigger plating designs came into play which mimicked “kozane” armor designs. It was faster, more economical and easier to make, but less flexible.
In this design the Do (chest plate), now closes around the chest and under the right armpit utilizing a hinge under the left armpit. This design became known as “Tosei,” and is a modern style influenced by European armor of that period. With these cheaper designs, the “daimyo,” or assigned regional governor, now has the ability to conscript more peasant soldiers into their army with a smaller investment. Learn More >>
Edo Era (1603 ~ 1868)
As the Sengoku period came to an end, so did much of the upheaval. This era is marked by an explosion of art, culture and literature. As a result of the peacefulness of this period, Daimyo and Samurai warriors now spent less on military campaigns, and more on embellishment of their swords and armor. This resulted in armor that was functional for military actions, but more ceremonial and ornate in nature. During this period chainmail and defensive armor also came into play. They could be hidden or designed to look like a normal part of their clothing, like kusari, tatami or kikko plating.
The armor during this period, involved more gold plates, metal alloys and European materials which have more eye appeal than earlier versions of Muromachi and Sengoku. Antique armors found on the market today are beautiful and full of design elements. Gendai armor is often based on this period. In some cases, Sengoku yoroi were restored or updated with Edo period designs and materials. The scales continued, but became a mix between earlier Muromachi and late Sengoku (Tosei) design armor. This became the basis of Gendai armor from this point onward. Learn More >>
Meiji Era (1868 ~ 1912)
The rise of the Japanese Empire characterized the Meiji Period. This armor style is called “Gendi.” It was less focused on complexity and involved more modern materials, paints and styles which by now had been incorporated from European styles.
Armor of this period may look like a molded body cover with a coating of coconut husks and/or leather, then covered with a type of resin for eye appeal, prevent rusting, protect it from weather and to hold it all together.
This period is the final end of the samurai. Due to the European influence and culture, the idea of a strong central government took precedence over the regional leaders which characterized the samurai tradition. To break the power of the samurai they were abolished and their culture became a romance of the Kobuki theater and woodblock printing.
As ancient traditions were lost, and the Bushido code became romanticized, so did the art of crafting the armor of the samurai. This is why we work with crafters worldwide in the study and preservation of this art which is quickly fading into obscurity.
Iron Mountain Armory is doing its best to learn, develop and uphold these ancient traditions while crafting historically accurate and economical Gendai reproduction samurai armor. As we learn we will continue to improve.
About Iron Mountain Armor
Now that you know the basic history of each period you can choose the armor which you feel is right for you and your interests.
Armor made by Iron Mountain Armory is made with laminated plating based on original period designs and styles. It is designed to flex and absorb impacts without breaking while allowing for climbing, running and even subtle movement. We can even offer equipment which is guaranteed to stand up to mock-play, budo training, heavy hits or even full warfare depending on cost and style.
For more information about the durability and strength of our armor, take a look at the following video where we put our gear to the ultimate test!
1: Arms and Armor of the Samurai: The History of Weaponry in Ancient Japan (1995) I. Bottomley & A.P. Hopson
2: Samurai Armor: The Japanese Cuirass (2017) Absolon, Trevor
Disclaimer: We always try to show pictures and describe our products in terms which are most generally accepted by the academic community.