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Samurai armor

Enlarge this image. Suit of armor. Japan. Edo period (1615–1868). Black lacquered iron plates, leather, textile, and silk cord. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of Mr. R.P. Schwerin, B74M7.
What elements of this armor make it useful for a warrior?
This suit of armor is a type known as “modern equipment” (tosei gusoku). A full set of “modern equipment” armor consists of a body protector, helmet, and an iron mask. Less cumbersome than older armor types, this type was developed in the 1500s to maximize the soldier’s ability to move easily in battle and to protect him from musket fire, which had been recently introduced into warfare. This example includes a hinged iron cuirass (protective shell that includes a breastplate and backplate), probably derived from Western prototypes. Divided into two welded metal sections, the cuirass could easily be put on and removed; its solidity also provided superior protection. A divided skirt, suspended from the breastplate, allowed the soldier to twist, turn, or jump on his horse, while affording protection for the hips and thighs. Completing the protective gear are shoulder guards, arm covers, thigh armor (worn under the skirt), and shin guards. Constructed from thin strips of lacquered iron joined with braided silk lacing, these parts were flexible and relatively lightweight.
Other elements of the design helped create a distinctive appearance for the soldier who wore this armor. The bright blue lacing and the running, sword-wielding figure painted on the breastplate are both eye-catching and showy. The rich materials and colors used here suggest the wealth and status of the wearer.

What materials were used in making this armor?

The breastplate is made of two large, leather-lined iron plates. Other parts are of small lacquered iron plates (lames) laced together with silk cord in parallel rows. Metal splints linked by chain cover sleeves of blue brocade fabric. Colored lacquer and maki-e designs executed with gold and silver powders are used for the breastplate decoration.
Suit of armor (detail). Japan. Edo period (1615–1868). Black lacquered iron plates, leather, textile, and silk cord. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of Mr. R.P. Schwerin, B74M7.

Who is depicted on the breastplate?

The breastplate is emblazed with the figure of Achala (Japanese: Fudo Myoo), a popular Buddhist deity. Achala’s protective character is indicated by his sword and by the bright red flames that emanate from his body. The rope held in his left hand points to his ability to rein in evil (or round up the evildoers frightened by his sword). Here Achala is shown running through waves, a common way of referring to his protective powers. Legend has it that returning from a journey to China, the ship carrying Kukai (a legendary ninth century Buddhist monk) was caught in a storm. After appealing to a statue of Achala for protection, Kukai was rewarded with a vision of the angry god attacking the waves with his sword, calming the storm and saving the ship and its passengers.

Why was this figure popular among samurai?

Samurai identified with Achala as a guardian figure. Sometimes called “the Immovable One,” Achala is also identified with a quality of steadfastness, even when in the midst of danger. His attribute of a sword and wrathful expression make him an apt symbol of the warrior spirit.

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