samurai armor

This suit of armor is cobbled together, composed of various pieces created in different eras, but it’s pretty representative of the peak of armor-making in the Tokugawa period of Japan, which lasted from 1600 (when Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the islands after the Battle of Sekigahara) to 1868 (when the Meiji Restoration brought Japan into the modern era). Although the Edo Period, as it was called, was in many ways the pinnacle of feudal Japanese civilization, which necessarily included samurai, the armor of this period tended to be at least as much ceremonial as practical, for the Tokugawa government fought no foreign wars during its 250+ year reign and internal rebellions were generally not very extensive. Japan, for the most part, was at peace.

Yet the traditions of Japan’s warrior caste, the samurai, were still very much a part of Japanese culture. The helmet of this ensemble, which dates from the 17th century, is intended to resemble a monster of some sort, used to supposedly strike fear into an enemy. Much of the armor is comprised of iron plates woven together with leather and silk, with chain mail pieces underneath. The samurai warrior code specified that soldiers  must be ready for anything at any time, and thus there was vigilant preparations for wars that rarely came. Although the Tokugawa shogunate lost its power in 1868 the martial tradition of Japan continued well into the 20th century, with the modern Japanese characteristic of state pacifism being a recent invention, only since Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War in 1945.

Japan is interesting in that it deliberately remained a largely feudal society until the late 19th century, long after many other great powers had embraced modernism. Despite their obvious drawbacks feudalism and a warrior tradition brought stability and a high standard of living to the Japanese people for centuries. With several pieces, especially of the armor, dating from the 19th century, this ensemble is an artifact of Japan on the brink of its engagement with modernity, and yet everything about it is still firmly rooted in the old traditions.

This suit of armor is on display at the British Museum in London.

The photo of the chronometer of the Beagle is copyright (c) by the Trustees of the British Museum. I use it here in accordance with their terms of use.