How Samurai Work


Reproduction of Oda Nobunaga's armor
Reproduction of Oda Nobunaga's armor
Photo courtesy

A samurai is instantly recognizable due to his distinctive armor and helmet. Although early samurai armor exhibited a solid-plate construction (5th and 6th century, A.D.), it is the lamellar armor that came next that continues to represent the samurai image today. Lamellar armor is made by binding together metal scales into a small plate, which is then covered with lacquer to make it waterproof. These small, light plates are fastened together with cords of leather, each plate slightly overlapping the other. Originally, there were two basic types of lamellar armor:

  • Yoroi - Worn by mounted samurai, this heavy armor included heavy helmets and imposing shoulder guards.
  • Do-Maru - Worn by foot soldiers, this armor was more closely-fitted and lighter in weight.

Much later, as hand-to-hand combat became more prevalent, the do-maru style armor became more popular among all samurai. Do-maru were modified to include heavy helmets and light-weight shoulder and shin guards.

Helmets, called kabuto, are made from metal plates riveted together. In many designs, the rivets form rows of ridges along the outside of the helmet, adding to their distinctive look. Higher-ranking samurai added clan symbols and other decorative flourishes to their helmets. Some helmets included metal masks bearing intimidating devil faces, sometimes with mustaches and beards made from horsehair. During peaceful periods, these helmet ornaments grew very elaborate, and today are considered works of art.

Before donning his armor, a samurai would wear a one-piece undergarment covered by a kimono and a pair of baggy pants. A padded cap would help ease the weight of the heavy iron helmet.