Menpo : The Samurai armor face guard history and types


From Practicality to Artistry -- A Deep Dive into the Many Faces of Samurai Menpo

Menpo 面頬 refers to protective gear designed to guard the face. Menpo was born in the late Heian period, and since then, various types have been created depending on the parts of the face to be protected and their uses. From the Muromachi period onwards, Menpo was used not only as protective gear but also as a means to intimidate the enemy.
As a result, the design become more than a simple protective gear, but also with various expressions using motifs that resemble human faces, animal faces, monsters, and gods and Buddhas.
Such Menpo not only intimidated the enemy but also had belief that the user could get the strength of the motif or prayed for protection.

Types of Menpo:


The “Happuri半首” is a type of Menpo (face guard) that covers from both cheeks to the forehead, protecting the face from incoming arrows and other attacks. It emerged around the late Heian period and was widely used until the Nanboku-cho period. It was made from materials such as iron plates and hardened leather, and was used by a wide range of warriors from high-ranking samurai to lower-ranking soldiers. However, it declined after the Muromachi period due to the popularity of “Hoate” (cheek guards).

Hoate 頬当

Hoate 頬当 is a Menpo that protects the face from both cheeks to the chin and the neck, in contrast to the Happuri. As the scale of battles expanded from the late Kamakura period to the Nanboku-cho period, and close combat became more intense, it began to be used in place of the Happuri. Iron ones are called “Kanamen”, and hardened leather ones are called “Neribo”. The chin part has a metal fitting called “Odayori” attached to secure the “Kabuto no O” (helmet cord), and the Hoate is generally used in conjunction with a helmet. The part that protects the throat is called “Tare” or “Suga”, and there are ones made by weaving small or large plates, and ones made like “Nodowa” (a small piece of armor hung from the neck to protect the upper part of the body). Hoate has various types depending on the shape, and there are ones that only protect from both cheeks to the chin, and ones that protect up to the nose called “Somen”. There are “Me no Shitabo”, “Hanbo”, “Tsubakuro Hoate”, “Etchu Hoate”, etc.

Hitaiate 額当

The “Hitaiate額当” is a Menpo that protects the front half of the forehead. It is not clear when the Hitaiate began to be used, but it is thought that it was used when the Happuri was replaced by the Hoate. In the late Muromachi period, the development of the “Mabisashi”, one of the parts of the helmet, made it possible to protect the forehead, and the Hitaiate declined.

Me no Shitabo 目の下頬 

“Me no Shitabo 目の下頬” refers to a type of Menpo (face guard) that protects the lower half of the face, similar to a mask. The oldest existing Me no Shitabo dates back to the Muromachi period and was widely used by warlords during the Sengoku period. Initially, they were simple in design, but as time passed, more elaborate designs were created, resulting in a variety of shapes and expressions.

There are various types of nose shapes, including “Kirihana” (切鼻cut nose), “Tobihana” (鳶鼻flying nose), and “Tenguhana” (天狗鼻Tengu nose). To intimidate, masks with mustaches and beards also became popular. The most common expression for Me no Shitabo is “Resseimen 烈勢面”, which looks an angry face.

Other types include “Emimen” (笑面smiling face), “Okinamen(翁面 Old men face)” and “Ubamen(姥面 Old lady face)” , and “Tengumen” (天狗面 mimics a Tengu). These masks are said to be similar to the “masks” used in “Sarugaku” (猿楽 the precursor to Noh), and served to hide the wearer’s expression and confuse the enemy on the battlefield.

There are also types where the nose can be removed, and types of Me no Shitabo with ears. As for the mouth, it is open to facilitate breathing and speaking on the battlefield, but there are also designs that mimic teeth, showing a variety of designs.

総面 Somen

“Somen” is a type of Menpo that protects from the forehead to the chin and throat, resembling a mask. It includes a tare that hangs down to protect the wearer’s face completely, providing high level defensive.

However, because the Somen is heavy and restricts the vision, it was not widely used on the battlefield during times of civil strife. As the Edo period began and armor was no longer used in actual combat, armor began to be displayed as a symbol of a daimyo’s family status, and elaborate decorations were added.

As a result, Somen also became more decorative, and its popularity increased as a part of the artistic embellishment of armor.

History of Menpo

The exact period when Menpo (face guards) appeared in Japan is unclear, but in the “Heiji Monogatari Ekotoba 平治物語絵詞”, which depicts the “Heiji Rebellion” that broke out in the late Heian period, you can see horse-riding warriors wearing large armor, their faces covered with a “black object”. This scroll itself is said to have been created in the Kamakura period, and even if there was some dramatization, it is not considered to be a completely fictional depiction by the author. Considering this, it is highly likely that by the time of the Heiji Rebellion (1160), there was armor similar to the “black object” depicted in the scroll. This object is thought to be the “Happuri”, which is said to be the oldest form of Menpo. This small armor (Kogusoku 小具足: parts other than armor, helmet, and sleeves) that protects from the forehead to both cheeks was mostly made with black lacquer.

Generally, it is believed that Menpo appeared in the Heian period. However, its origins can be seen in the late Kofun period. You can see this in the armed Haniwa 武装埴輪, which provides clues to the armor used in the Kofun period. Specifically, the helmet that the armed Haniwa is wearing. The “Shikoro” of the Haniwa’s helmet hangs down to cover both cheeks. In other words, it is believed that the helmet itself had a function to protect the face. Later, to ensure the wearer’s field of vision, the Shikoro of the Oyoroi's helmet was bent outward and changed to “Fukikaeshi”. A gap was created, and the defense became thin, so a new type of armor was devised to protect the face (both cheeks) that needed protection.

Before the Heian period
Since Menpo (face guards) are part of Japanese armor, it is generally believed that Menpo were not made in the period before the Heian period, which predates the appearance of Japanese armor. However, as mentioned earlier, the fact that iron fragments, thought to be remnants of cheek guard-like armor, have been excavated from Kofun in small numbers suggests that some form of protective gear was being made in the Kofun period to protect the face.

Heian to Kamakura period
With the Heian period came the rise of the samurai, who made a living from the use of military force. At the same time, the Oyoroi, which is the starting point of Japanese armor, appeared. This led to the use of helmets of a different shape from the short armor and hanging armor that had been used until then. Until then, the protective gear for the face had been integrated with the helmet, but in Japanese armor, it was separated for reasons such as ensuring the field of vision. In its place, the Hanburi was devised as a protective gear to protect the face (mainly the forehead and both cheeks). The Hanburi, which is said to have been worn by lower-ranking soldiers who did not wear helmets, is the oldest form of Menpo. However, the Hanburi gradually declined after the Kamakura period, and very few Hanburi made in the Heian period exist today. As I will explain in detail later, the existing Hanburi are works from the period when “retro-style” armor and small armor were actively made during the “retroism” of the Edo period and beyond.

Kamakura period 

There was a significant change in the way battles were fought. The one-on-one “horseback archery battles” fought by mounted warriors shifted to “standing battles” (Kachidachi-sen) fought between large numbers of infantry. As a result of the emphasis on mobility, the simple armor “Do-maru” and “Haramaki” that had been worn by lower-ranking soldiers became mainstream. At the same time, the Menpo (face guard) also changed. The “Hanbo” (half-face guard), which eliminated waste and retained a minimum level of defense while adopting a lighter form, was created.

The Hanbo, which is shaped like an inverted version of the initial form of the Menpo, the Happuri, protects from both cheeks to the chin and includes a “tare” (hanging guard) under the chin to protect the throat. This shows that there was a consciousness of protecting the throat.

From the Muromachi period to the Azuchi-Momoyama period

After the appearance of the Hanbo, the Menpo began to take on the character of a “mask” used in classical performing arts. The primary function of the Menpo as armor is to protect the face from enemy attacks. It is, so to speak, a passive piece of armor. However, the Menpo that appeared after the Hanbo did not stop there. By giving expressions to the Menpo, it was possible to intimidate the enemy on the battlefield or instill fear in them, incorporating an aggressive aspect.

A major difference between the Menpo of the Nanboku-cho period and earlier is the presence of a “nose”. The Menpo, which was born in the Heian period, had been weak in defense against attacks from the front compared to attacks from the side. It is said that the reason why a nose was not attached to the Menpo was that it was thought that protecting the nose would obstruct the wearer’s field of vision. The “Me no Shitabo” (lower face guard) with a removable nose can be said to have been the “ultimate Menpo” devised based on the experiences of seasoned warriors who had fought many battles.

Among the Me no Shitabo with noses, the most common is said to be the “Resseimen” (fierce face), which has an expression of intense anger. Soldiers (samurai) who wore a Menpo with an angry expression fought bravely as if their spirit had been transferred to them. The Me no Shitabo can also be said to have been a tool for disguise.

In the Edo period and beyond

When the world was at peace, armor took on the role of demonstrating the authority of the samurai. In other words, it became a valuable work of art, a family treasure. Against this backdrop, the most advanced techniques of the time were used in armor production during the Edo period. Of course, this was no exception for the accompanying small armor.

The Happuri, the initial form of the Menpo (face guard), is mostly from works made after the Edo period. They are decorated by carefully layering black lacquer or applying “Egawa” (tanned deer leather dyed with patterns), and some works have gold leaf applied to the back, conveying their luxurious appearance to the present day.

The “Somen” (full face guard), which covers the entire face, was made from the Nanboku-cho period to the Edo period, but there are few surviving works, making them of rare value. In Somen, the hair of a mammal called a “Yak”, which is said to have lived in the mountains of India and other places, was used, and it was decorated using iron forging techniques and Egawa.

In this way, the armor makers of the Edo period competed with each other to produce works of art with elaborate techniques.

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