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A brief history of samurai armor

Learn about samurai armor by exploring artworks in the Asian Art Museum's collection. Learn more about samurai armor on the Asian Art Museum's education website. Created by Asian Art Museum.

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Video transcript

for over 600 years from 1185 to 1868 Japan was ruled by a military government or bakufu the armor of Japan's highest-ranking military has inspired generations of historians filmmakers and artists to reimagine this time in history let's look at some real examples of armor from the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Tokyo National Museum in Japan to explore the people who wore this armor and how it changed over time the oldest surviving representations of Japanese armor are found among artifacts excavated from ancient tombs during this period clay figurines called haniwa were placed atop burial mounds these haniwa included soldiers wearing armor based on prototypes from neighboring China and Korea during the medieval period a distinct Japanese style of armor developed warriors who wrote on horseback had an armored skirt sleeves and shoulder thigh and shin guards these wares used a bow and arrow and sword as weapons this x-ray image reveals the hundreds of small metal plates making up the body section the plates are laced together in an overlapping pattern and provided strength and flexible movement to the wear for the lower ranking foot soldiers armor was lighter but less sophisticated and didn't offer as much protection it was constructed with one continuous sheath like torso foot soldiers used a spear as their main weapon samurai armor evolved over time to adapt to the changing styles of warfare for example in 1543 when the portuguese introduced firearms Japanese armor makers developed a new type of armor capable of sustaining the impact of musket fire this armor design protected the entire body while being light enough to enable quick and nimble movement a divided skirt suspended from the breastplate allowed the soldier to twist turn or jump on his horse while protecting his hips and thighs pet gear was elaborately decorated so warriors were visible from a distance some masks were designed with the fierce and frightening appearance to scare opponents on the battlefield around the 1600s we see a surge in the production of highly artistic armor this armor from the Asian Art Museum was made during the relatively peaceful Edo period and was likely used only for display or ceremony it would have represented the Warriors wealth artistic sensibilities and proud military identity historian Andrea hor bin skee explains why there was such an increase in armour production during this 200 years of peace when samurai became samurai who were in power and in a position to be commissioning art that is they became very into displaying their status and their wealth and their heritage that had put them in this position of power so the art and the arms and armor are beautiful not very functional but beautiful samurai as these sort of peerless warriors from the beginning until the end I think that's completely overblown contemporary views of samurai armor are often based on later examples of the samurai elite however over the centuries this armor has reflected the wide range of roles and functions of Japan's military class you you you