This very ornate suit of Japanese armour dates to around the middle of the Edo period (1603–1867). It comprises many separate pieces including a 32-plate helmet with a demon crest, a war fan, inner and outer boots, armoured gloves, mempo (face mask) and silk undergarments, padded and reinforced with chain mail.
Several clues make it likely that this armour belonged to a high-ranking samurai warrior – either a feudal lord (daimyo), or one of his generals (taisho). The iron war-fan was a symbol of high military rank, used primarily to direct troops on the battlefield but which also served as a makeshift weapon. A samurai’s footwear also reflected his social status; regular samurai wore cow-skin boots but these are made of bear-skin, a more prestigious material. Also visible on the helmet turnbacks (and repeated elsewhere) is a heraldic badge known as mon. This type of mon – a stylized star – was only used by very important families. Finally, below the demon crest on the helmet, is an intricate bras fretwork of chrysanthemums, the flower of the Emperor.
Despite looking fragile, samurai armour was very robust. Here, sheer plate is used for the shoulder-guards and helmet; the apron is formed of rectangular plates butted together in a ‘brigandine’ style, and the breastplate is made from lots of overlapping lacquered steel pieces, almost invisible under the tight silk that laces them together. Despite these structural features, this armour was almost certainly not used for combat. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Japan, isolated from the rest of the world, experienced a prolonged period of peace and the samurai class became civil servants rather than warlords. The Shogun, the de facto military leader, required each daimyo to journey to the court at Edo (present-day Tokyo) with his samurai, and remain there for six months. This promoted a culture of extensive annual marching back and forth to the capital, giving the warriors a chance to show off in ornate ‘parade’ armour.
The last time full samurai armour was worn in battle was during the Boshin War (1868–1869), a civil war that brought the Shogun’s rule to an end and reinstated the Emperor to mark the birth of modern Japan. The samurai class was abolished and much of the Japanese arms and armour now found Western museums was collected around this time.