I expect your idea of armour is the kind of solid, clanking metal suit you might find nowadays standing in the hall at a stately home. Effective, but heavy and unwieldy. Or maybe lighter, more flexible chain mail – a great step forward. But in Japan they went further. To enable samurai to ride, shoot arrows and use a sword, they developed a lightweight armour in which metal or leather scales were bound together with string. Doesn’t sound too effective? You’d be surprised.
There’s a rare chance to see a modern version of this kind of Japanese armour, called O-yoroi, in an exhibition at the Japanese Gallery in Kensington by Kyoto-based armourers Usagi Juku.
The husband and wife team of armour artists use traditional crafts of braided cord, fringed thread and metal fittings in a craft that dates back to the Heian period, over a thousand years ago.
The exhibition includes two complete suits of armour and twenty-one shoulder guards.
A complete suit would weigh around 30 kg (65 pounds), with iron being used only in the most vital parts and leather in the rest.
Sometimes weight was kept down by alternating metal and leather scales, making the suit flexible and light. A full suit could take up to 265 days to make, using two thousand scales in its construction.
The armour was loose fitting so it could be used on horseback, giving it a characteristic boxy shape.
Shoulder guards were deliberately large so they acted like shields. Their colour, design, and material were specific to the clan and rank of the warrior and were used for identification on the field of battle.
At first higher-ranking officials had the plates of their armour laced together tightly, while lower ranking samurai had loose lacing. But gradually they all moved to loose lacing to decrease the weight, allow more flexibility, and help with ventilation. Loose lacing also meant the armour could be cleaned and dried out so it didn’t rot.
Usagi Juku’s Ako Uzuki studied under Muneyuki Myochin, head of the Myochin family of armourers. Myochin makes reproductions of historical armour for museums and advised on the armour used in the film Seven Samurai.
The exhibition is only on for a short time – it closes on 6 October so hurry if you want to get a look at it. The Japanese Gallery is in Kensington Church St and the exhibition is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm.