Introduction The Samurai Armor Sode Types and History


From Battlefields to Artistry: Exploring Samurai Sode and Its Cultural Significance

“Sode” (袖) are the armored shoulder guards of traditional Japanese samurai armor, attached to the cuirass and covering the upper arms. They come in various styles and lengths, with articulated plates for flexibility. Along with the helmet (kabuto), cuirass (dō), and leg guards (haidate and suneate), they form the “yoroi” or “gusoku” armor system, reflecting samurai martial traditions and craftsmanship.

History of Sode

Sode's history begins with the “Tanko” (短甲) and “Keiko” (挂甲) armors of the Kofun period, and it has changed its form many times. Therefore, there is a significant difference in shape between the “Oyoroi” (大鎧)  sode born in the late Heian period and the “Tosei Gusoku” (当世具足) sode of the late Muromachi period. How did the sode change their shape over time? this article will introduce the origin of the ode and the major types.

Origin of Sode

It is said that the origin of the Sode is the “shoulder armor” (肩鎧) attached to the “Tankou” (短甲), an armor used in the Kofun period.

The shoulder armor of the Tankou was made by connecting horizontal plates (板札) with cords or leather, and it could be moved flexibly. Many artifacts expressing the shoulder armor of the Tanko have been found in the Haniwa (埴輪) armor excavated from the tombs of that time.

Next, the “Keiko” (挂甲) was introduced to Japan from the continent in the late Kofun period. The Keiko is thought to have been designed for mounted combat because it is shorter than the Tanko. And the shoulder armor of the Keiko was made by connecting small plates (小札: small metal or leather plates). It is said to have been more flexible and fit the body better than the shoulder armor of the Tanko.

In addition, the Tanko and Keiko were equipped with accessories such as helmets (兜), bodies (胴), grass skirts (草摺), gauntlets (籠手), and shin guards (臑当).

Major Types of Sode

大袖 Osode

The “Oosode” (large Sode) were an integral part of the “Oyoroi” (great armor), which evolved from the “Tanko” (short armor) during the Nara to early Heian period. The Ooyoroi, used primarily in mounted archery battles, was heavily built to prevent arrows from penetrating. The Oosode, large Sode, were added to this armor to deflect arrow attacks. They were made of small plates (Kozane 小札), similar to the Sode of the Tanko, and were tied to the shoulder without adhesive, allowing them to be used as shields.

The Osode are not attached to other parts. Therefore, they can be easily positioned as shields by twisting the shoulders,  to deflect enemy blades or arrows when necessary. In some cases, they were worn on one side only.

広袖 Hiro sode and 壺袖 Tsubo sode

The “Hirosoode” (wide Sode) and “Tsubosode” (pot Sode) were developed for more agile movement. The Hirosoode emerged from the Nanbokucho to the early Muromachi period due to changes in battle tactics. The Tsubosode, smaller and tighter around the arm, came into use in the Muromachi period.

当世袖 Tosei Sode

The “Tosei Gusoku” (modern armor) introduced in the late Muromachi period brought a significant change to the armor. The Sode of the Tosei Gusoku, known as “Tosei Sode”, were more refined and came in a variety of materials and colors. They were curved to fit the shape of the upper arm and were attached to the shoulder with a claw-like fixture, making movements like walking and running easier.

Lower ranking samurai and their Sode

In scroll paintings depicting samurai, you often see warriors mounted on splendid horses, clad in luxurious Oyoroi. However, only high-ranking samurai could afford such armor. Serving under these high-ranking samurai were the lower-ranking samurai, often referred to as Ashigaru (foot soldiers). They wear whatever their daimyo provided, or they did their best to get a functional armor. 

Making an armor is expensive, so for lower ranking samurai, often times their armor did not come with parts like Sode, kabuto, kusazuri, kote, and suneate, as the Oyoroi did. They typically wore mass-produced and inexpensive Haramaki (belly wrap armor), Do-maru (round armor), or Hara-ate (belly guards), or something similar to a headband called Hitai-ate. It’s said that they often went into battle almost barefoot.

In the late Muromachi period, during the Sengoku era when group warfare became prevalent, lower-ranking samurai began to play a more crucial role in battles. They were “half-farmer, half-soldier,” ordinary peasants who were conscripted as soldiers in times of war. Therefore, they generally did not prepare their own armor; instead, the Daimyo (feudal lord) who ruled the land provided it.

This was called “Okashi Gusoku,御貸具足” a simple, mass-produced set of armor that included a Do, Sode, Kote, Suneate, and a war hat (Jingasa). The Daimyo’s family crest was applied to the front and back of the body and Jingasa, which was crucial for instantly identifying affiliation when moving in groups.

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