Samurai Helmet Kabuto - A complete guide to understand the parts, types and history
In the Japanese, “Kabuto” means “helmet”. This important component of Samurai armor was designed to protect the head in combat. However, the Kabuto’s significance extends beyond its practical use, as it also embodies substantial cultural and symbolic value. This article will introduce what kabuto is, the different parts on a Kabuto, and different types of Kabuto.
This article is focusing on Kabuto on Yoroi, and later armors, kabutos before Yoroi were heavily influenced by Chinese and Korean Armors, they are not what most of us will picture “kabuto” is, and they are not within the discussion of this article.
Main Components of Kabuto:
In general, and from practical perspective, a kabuto is consists of two parts: a Hachi 鉢 (Bowl) that protects the top of the head, and a Shikoro 錣 (Skirt) that protects the entire neck. Other parts are for protection of certain area in the face, such as nose, eyes, or purply for decoration, they are: Maedate立物(crest) ,Fukigaeshi吹返,mabisashi目庇(Brim),Menpo面頬 (Mask).
The Kabuto Hachi refers to the primary component of the helmet that protects and encloses the head. It is fundamentally the bowl or dome section of the helmet, and its design can differ based on the specific helmet type and the era it was created in.
The Hachi can be crafted from a single metal piece or from numerous plates connected together by rivets. These plates are usually rectangular and are organized in an overlapping manner to offer enhanced protection. The quantity of plates can differ, with some helmets incorporating up to 120 plates.
Iron is the primary material used, although leather is sometimes used. The use of leather can result in a lighter and more comfortable helmet, but it might not offer the same degree of protection as a helmet made of iron.
The Shikoro is an important part of a Samurai’s armor, specifically designed to protect the neck area. This is particularly important in combat situations, as the neck is a vulnerable area that, if struck, could be fatal.
The Shikoro is typically made up of several layers of metal plates. These plates are often carefully crafted and arranged in a way that allows for movement, while still providing robust protection. The layers of plates can absorb and distribute the force of a blow, reducing the risk of injury.
The Maedate is a crest that attached to the front of a samurai’s helmet. These crests are more than just ornamental features; they hold profound symbolism and meaning. They frequently depict the emblems of the samurai’s clan or family, acting as a form of recognition on the battlefield.
Constructed from a variety of materials such as metal, wood, or leather, the Maedate can be decorated in many ways, including gilding, lacquering, or other forms of decoration. Some are straightforward silhouettes, while others are complex works of art carved from wood, enhanced with lacquer, hair, and other materials.
The Maedate’s design can greatly differ, mirroring the samurai’s individuality and rank. Some are modest and subtle, while others are detailed and extravagant. Regardless of its design, the Maedate plays a vital role in the samurai’s armor, adding to its unique and commanding presence.
Fukigaeshi are Ear-Like flanges that serve as extensions or additions to one or more of the upper bands of a shikoro, standing upright on either side of a kabuto’s visor. Initially, they were crafted from the entire front sections of the shikoro, excluding only the bottom-most lame. Their main function was to stop a downward katana strike from slipping between the lames of the shikoro and cutting the suspensory lacing.
As time passed, the design of the fukigaeshi underwent changes. By the fifteenth century, they had been significantly reduced in size, consisting only of the top two lames with a gentle backward sweep. By the close of the sixteenth century, they had become even smaller, often resembling small ear-like flanges protruding from the top-most lame of the shikoro. Some helmets did not feature fukigaeshi at all.
Fukigaeshi were frequently decorated with the samurai’s kamon, or family crest. They could be constructed from a variety of materials, such as leather or metal, and could be attached in several ways, either made as a single piece with the hachitsuke-no-ita or attached separately.
Mabisashi is essentially the brim or peak that juts out from the helmet’s front, with the purpose of shielding the wearer’s face, especially the eyes, from elements like the sun and rain. Additionally, it functions to ward off strikes from weapons. The mabisashi’s design and form can differ, and it can be embellished or decorated in a many ways.
Menpo, alternatively known as Mempō, Mengu, Men Yoroi, or Menoshitabō, is a distinctive war mask closely linked with the Samurai warriors of Japan. These masks have become quite iconic and are the subject of extensive discussion and research. Menpo provides extra layer of defense for the face in combat, the design could intimidate opponents and hide the wearer’s true emotions.
Different Types of Kabuto:
The Hoshi Kabuto, also known as the “star helmet”, is a remarkable piece of ancient Japanese armor. Its design is both intricate and distinctive. Typically, it consists of 8-12 rectangular scales that come together to form the hachi. Each scale is vertically positioned and fastened to the neighboring scales with six rivets.
These are not just any rivets; they have large, domed heads, known as hoshi, which means “star” in Japanese. It is these star-shaped rivets that lend the helmet its unique name - Hoshi Kabuto, the “Star Helmet”.
Suji literally means "Tendon" in English. The Suji kabuto gained popularity during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The word “suji” refers to the ribs incorporated into the helmet’s design during this era. These ribs, formed from the narrow edge of each scale and curved at a right angle, added significant strength to the helmet without increasing its weight. This type of helmet was known as suji bachi kabuto, translating to “ribbed bowl helmet”. The rivets on these helmets were smoothed down and the surface was given a lacquer finish. Additionally, the visor’s angle became more horizontal in this period.
Zunari Kabuto 頭形兜
The Hachi of Zunari Kabuto looks similar to a human head, and in Japanese Zunari literally means “Head shape” . There are 3 types of Zunari Kabuto: 古頭形兜（Ko-Zunari Kabuto）， 越中頭形兜（Ecchu Zunari Kabuto) and 日根野頭形兜（Hinrno Zunari Kabuto)
古頭形兜（Ko Zunari Kabuto）
Ko Zunari Kabuto is the earliest to appear, believed to have emerged at the end of the Muromachi period.
The helmet mainly comes in three-plate and five-plate versions, usually used with simple iron Haramaki and Domaru. The Ko Zunari Kabuto is lighter, easier to make, and very low cost. It can be mass-produced in a short time. Because of these advantages, it is widely used among all level of samurais.
越中頭形兜（Ecchu Zunari Kabuto)
Ecchu Zunari Kabuto was designed by Hosokawa Tadaoki, the lord of Kokura Domain in Buzen Province, and he personally used it on the battlefield. Tadaoki was the governor of Ecchu, so the armor he liked was naturally called “Ecchu gusoku”越中具足. Tadaoki was a famous warlord who was proficient in armor and weapons. The Ecchu Zunari Kabuto is an improvement of the old Ko Zunari Kabuto, making it more protective on defending against firearms.
日根野頭形兜（Hinrno Zunari Kabuto）
The Hineno Zunari Kabuto was made using iron plates and leather, with a very smooth and rounded surface that closely resembles a human head. This helmet was created by Hineno Bitchu no Kami Hironari, Orimon Masataka Yoshi, and Yoshiaki, hence it is called “Hineno zunari Kabuto”. The Hineno Kabuto is based on the Ko zunari Kabuto, and was improved to increase defense against firearms. It was produced during the Azuchi-Momoyama period, and the shape of the helmet was initially small, but it gradually became larger over time.
突盔形兜 Toppainari Kabuto
Toppainari Kabuto, in Japanese, means the top is pointy. As pair kabuto with Haramaki and Domaru, Toppainari Kabuto appeared in the late Muromachi period.
Because the hachi looks similar to a peach, the name Momonari Kabuto literally means Peach-shaped Helmet. The Momonari Kabuto has a good buffering effect against direct attacks from weapons, and it is relatively light, suitable for mass production, and is often used by lower-level samurai, and is usually matched with the gusoku.
椎実形兜 Shinominari Kabuto
鉄錆地六枚張椎実形兜 Image source
椎実 Shinomi, means Castanopsis fruit, is a kind of fruit similar to chestnut.
The Shinominari Kabuto is named for its resemblance to the Shinomi, with a pointed rim of the helmet. Shinominari Kabuto appeared in the late Muromachi period. It was widely used by samurai from upper to lower ranks, so we can find many relics of the Shinominari Kabuto today.
南蠻形兜 Nanbannari Kabuto
鉄錆地桃形四枚矧二段眉庇南蛮兜 Image source
Nanban, In Japanese literally means “southern Barbarians”, actually refers to Europeans, because they came from the south of Japan.
The Nanbannari Kabuto was introduced from the West during the Warring States period. Because it imitates the shape of a hat, it was called a “Nanban hat helmet”. Only the bowl (Hachi ) was brought in, other parts like Shikoro and Mabisashi were made and installed domestically. This brand new kind of helmet was very popular at the time of introduction and was in short supply.
鉄地黒漆塗葵紋に虫尽し平蒔絵変わり兜 Image source
Kawari Kabuto is a kind of kabuto that focus on the appearance rather than protection. It was popular from the Azuchi-Momoyama period to the Edo period. Depending on the theme, it has a variety of designs. But they are all made to highlight the personality of the owner.
植毛兜 Uege Kabuto
Uege Kabuto is to place bear hair, wild boar hair, yak hair, and horse hair on the helmet bowl, as if it is growing on it. Bear hair uses two types of black bears and polar bears. The hair of polar bears and yaks is imported, and the price was high at that time. Owning expensive and rare things is the wish of every samurai.
Planting hair solves the problems of dryness and humidity of the helmet, and can also keep warm or cool. Wearing it makes you loos like a brave person.
張懸兜 Harikake Kabuto
The Harikake Kabuto is a type of Kawari Kabuto that is based on the design of Ko-Zunari-Kabuto, Momonari-Kabuto, and Toppainari-Kabuto. It uses iron plates, leather, Japanese paper, etc, to imitate various images. It was created during the Azuchi-Momoyama period. The battlefield at that time was mainly on vast plain. Here, from the perspective of both the enemy and our side, the desire to have a “prominent” sign that can be recognized even from a distance is the biggest reason why people want Harikake-Kabuto, and even in strange designs.
提灯兜 Chouchin Kabuto
Chouchin means lantern in Japanese, it’s foldable. Chouchin kabuto looks similar to these lanterns, and it is also foldable as well.
In the Edo period, Chouchin kabuto was widely used. The Hachi and shikoro of the Chouchin-Kabuto can be folded. Its combination is to make the itazane into a ring, make the top plate into a circle, connect with the cords, and add a frame for fixing on the surface or inside. If you remove this frame, it will be easy to fold like a lantern, so it is very convenient for transportation and collection.
練革兜 Nerikawa kabuto
Nerikawa kabuto means leather helmet. It was born in the Kofun period and used until the end of the Edo period. The leather helmet is made by soaking cowhide in mucus to make it soft and using a wooden mold to shape it. This kind of helmet was very popular in the late Edo period. The reason is that it is simple to make, light, and easy to move. It has excellent defensive effects in close combat where guns cannot be used, so it is very popular.
History and development of Kabuto:
The earliest Kabuto can be found in the Kofun period, called the Shokakutsuki Kabuto 衝角付兜. By the Heian period, based on the previous Shokakutsuki Kabuto, it evolved into a helmet that could be used with Oyoroi and Domaru, which is the “Lgaboshi Kabuto”(厳星兜), it’s a kind of Hoshi Kabuto. Its bowl was made of ten trapezoidal iron plates, or joined to form a semi-circle.
In the Kamakura period, the helmet was made with more delicate in the fine parts, and the craftsmanship of the metal parts also became more exquisit. As a result, the Lgaboshi Kabuto was gradually replaced by Koboshi Kabuto (小星兜)
From the late Kamakura period to the Nanboku-cho periods, due to the Mongol invasions and the constant wars of the Nanboku-cho periods, the form of combat changed from horseback archery to on foot battle. At the same time, the Suji kabuto (筋兜), which is more suitable for warfare than the Koboshi Kabuto, became the most popular choice of kabuto.
During the Muromachi period, society was calm and peaceful. Colorful Doumaru and Haramaki armors became trendy. As the period ended, simple, light, durable, and functional iron versions of these armors gained popularity. At this time, The practical, undecorated helmets were widely used, such as Akoda Nari Kabuto (阿古陀形筋兜) ,Ko-Zunari-Kabuto (古頭形兜) and Toppainari-Kabuto (突盔形兜).
After the introduction of firearms in Sengoku Period, armor had to undergo major changes. Helmets needs to be more robust to resist firearms and spears, and focused on “anti-falling” and “anti-sliping”. Popular helmets at this time are 頭形兜 Zunari-Kabuto, 桃形兜 Momonari-Kabuto, 椎実形兜 Shinominari-Kabuto etc. The 南蠻形兜 Nanbannari-Kabuto, which was introduced from the West, was also adopted.
From the Momoyama period to the early Edo period, the Tosei gusoku (当世具足) was the mainstream, it can match with various helmets. The popularity of large Maedate 立物 that highlight the personality of the samurai also started in this era.
Under the stable rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, helmets gradually losing it’s practicality, and became a display of samurai authority, helmets were made using a higher technical level, and were more decorative, less practical helmets were produced at this time. Also, 提灯兜 Chouchin-Kabuto appeared at this time, it designed for convenience in storage and transportation.
In Edo Period, helmets were often used for test, one of the famous test is called “Kabutowari”, just like tameshigiri, samurai will use katana to strike the kabuto and see if they can split or crush the kabuto, ideally without damage the edge. Bullet test was also made, and the kabuto successfully survive the test and left with bullet marks, are more popular in the market because it shows how robust the helmet is.
Just like other parts of samurai armor, the Kabuto’s history is rich and its development over the centuries is fascinating. From the simpler, hemispherical helmets of the past to the more complex designs of the Sengoku period, the Kabuto is a testament to the evolution of Japanese armor. As we delve deeper into the world of Kabuto, we continue to uncover more about this remarkable piece of history.