What Is Samurai Armor Called?


What Is Samurai Armor Called?

The samurai of ancient Japan were renowned for their exceptional fighting skills and unwavering loyalty to their lords. These noble warriors, however, did not enter the battlefield unarmed and unprotected. We may have heard their famous weapons such as Katana, Tachi, but there is more in a samurai’s arsenal. Today we will talk about the samurai armor, called Katchū (甲冑), which encompassed a rich history of ancient Japan.

All armor in Japanese is called Katchū (甲冑), and the most famous and iconic one is called ō-yoroi (大鎧), which means great armor. In addition, there are Doumaru, Haramaki, and Haraate. All of these are simplified foot soldier armor.
Knowing more about samurai armor and its rich history will help us unlock a different dimension of the timeless Japanese culture. This article explores the various forms of samurai armor, focusing on the most famous and iconic one called ō-yoroi (大鎧) – the great armor.

Samurai using yumi in horseback

Ō-yoroi: The Iconic Great Armor

Ō-yoroi, is one of the most iconic and visually striking forms of samurai armor. This armor was traditionally worn by high-ranking samurai, daimyos (feudal lords), and noble warriors due to its complex construction and remarkable defense capabilities, and they usually order their custom armor to distinguish themselves .

The primary purpose of ō-yoroi was to provide unparalleled protection to its wearer during the tumultuous battles of feudal Japan. The armor consisted of multiple layers of metal plates, meticulously interconnected with leather or silk cords. It offered excellent defense against various attacks, including swords, spears, and arrows.

Since its invention during the Heian period, O-yoroi has been exclusively donned by esteemed cavalry warriors within the samurai ranks, and mainstream battle method in these period is mounted arrow shooting called Kishasen”(騎射戦). In their own right, these high-ranking samurai engaged in the traditional “individual duels (一騎討ち ikkiuchi) “method of combat. The mounted warriors engaged in one-on-one bow and arrow duels in this combat.

To safeguard the lower body during horseback riding, the Kusazuri was cleverly divided into four sections. It includes front, back, left, and right - enveloping the wearer's lower body like a protective box. However, this design limited its practicality for dismounting and walking comfortably on foot.

Furthermore, the armor's Kabuto (armor helmet) resilience against bow and arrow attacks was reinforced by enlarging features such as the "Fukikaeshi." This was on the front of the helmet, and the protective "large sleeves" were worn on the shoulders. This deliberate size increase accentuated the armor's efficacy in countering ranged attacks.

Pros of Ō-yoroi:
Impenetrable Defense: The layered construction of ō-yoroi made it exceptionally difficult for enemy weapons to breach, ensuring the samurai's safety on the battlefield.

Intimidating Presence: The armor's imposing appearance instilled fear in opponents' hearts, contributing to psychological warfare and sometimes deterring potential adversaries from engaging in combat.
Symbol of Status: Ō-yoroi was an expensive and labor-intensive armor, symbolizing status and prestige among the samurai class.

Cons of Ō-yoroi:
Weight and Mobility: The elaborate design of ō-yoroi resulted in considerable weight, limiting the wearer's mobility. This restricted movement could be a disadvantage during fast-paced battles.
Cost and Production: The cost of O-yoroi is high. The intricate crafting process and expensive materials required for ō-yoroi made it accessible only to the wealthy elite, rendering it a rare sight on the battlefield.

Doumaru, Haramaki, and Haraate: Simplified Foot Soldier Armors
Following the grandeur of ō-yoroi, there were simplified versions of samurai armor. These simplified armors cater to foot soldiers and lower-ranking warriors. Some of the most iconic ones are elaborated as follows.

Doumaru (胴丸)

Doumaru refers to torso armor covering the upper body and providing adequate protection to foot soldiers. It was the armor of choice for middle and lower-class samurai, especially during the era when cavalry battles reigned supreme.

As battles shifted from horseback to foot-based engagements ("Kachidachisen"), these samurai moved primarily on foot on the battlefield. In such circumstances, the lightweight and agile nature of the Doumaru provided them with ease of movement. It was a crucial advantage over the more cumbersome large armor.

During the Northern and Southern Courts period, battles transitioned towards large-scale conflicts known as " ." It featured armies clashing with swords, spears, naginata, and similar weaponry. It was around this time that high-ranking samurai started embracing the use of larger, more elaborate armor sets.

Haramaki (腹巻)

Haramaki was a simple armor that focused on protecting the abdominal region. It was lighter and less cumbersome than ō-yoroi, offering better mobility for infantrymen. A Haramaki is a unique form of armor designed to be worn by sliding the body in from the back and then drawing it together securely.

Notably, both large armor and Doumaru relied solely on the shoulders for support, but with time, the Haramaki also evolved to distribute the weight across the waist. Additionally, it proved to be even lighter than the Doumaru armor.

Moreover, to seal any openings at the back, a 'Seita' was employed. As the Muromachi period unfolded, high-ranking samurai began embracing Haramaki in addition to Doumaru. During such instances, the armor would be complemented with oversized sleeves for enhanced protection.

Haraate (腹当)

Haraate was a protective apron foot soldiers wore to safeguard the lower abdomen and groin area. It was a practical and cost-effective alternative to the more elaborate armor options. Historical accounts suggest that the Haraate has existed since the Kamakura period.

The "Haraate" or 腹当 was the most basic form of Japanese armor, commonly utilized by the least privileged soldiers. Yet, it was sufficient in functionality as it provided protection solely to the chest, and stomach. On the other hand, wealthier and higher-class warriors adopted it as lightweight battle gear, wearing it discreetly under their clothing.

Tosei Gusoku (当世具足): Armors of the Sengoku Period
Tosei Gusoku (当世具足) translates to "Modern Armour." It is technically a variation of the Doumaru, but it differs from the original in terms of material and design. Gusoku is a lighter, more durable type of armor than earlier armor.

The Sengoku period (1477-1573), known as the "Warring States" period, was characterized by almost constant armed conflict. This was caused by social unrest, political intrigue, and ongoing battles between rival regional lords known as Daimy. During the Sengoku era, Japan first encountered firearms, specifically matchlock muskets.

During this period, Samurais played a significant role on the battlefield, but there was a shift in emphasis. The strategies shifted from individual samurai bravery to the significance of well-coordinated infantry units (Ashigaru). Tosei Gusoku emerged in this period to adapt to the changing dynamics of the battlefield.

Tosei-gusoku is a variation of the Doumaru, but it differs in some significant dimensions. Gusoku is a lighter, more durable type of armor than earlier armor. This layout makes it easier for the body to move around while engaging in combat and pursuit. During the wartime of the Sengoku period, samurai and soldiers especially favored a variety of Japanese helmets and armor.

Gusoku represents the pinnacle of Japanese armor development, inheriting the positive traits of Oyoroi while also making several significant advances. Designing the Gusoku to serve as infantry combat armor placed a higher priority on defense and mobility than aesthetics.

Today, those Tosei Gusoku remains a captivating piece of history, reflecting the ingenuity and adaptability of the samurai in response to the ever-changing demands of war. The armor serves as a reminder of these noble warriors' unwavering spirit and enduring legacy, etching their indomitable mark on the pages of Japanese history.

From the awe-inspiring ō-yoroi to the practical Tosei Gusoku, samurai armor showcases Japanese armorers' craftsmanship, artistry, and ingenuity. So, in addition to Katana and Tachi, knowing more about what samurai armor is called and their evolution makes us appreciate Japanese history better.
And if that appreciation makes you want to own one of these pieces of samurai armor history yourself, feel free to check out our samurai armor collection. 

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