Discovery of a set of extremely unusual female Samurai armor

6 Nov 2012, Fine Japanese Art

A number of legends of female samurai warriors exist in the history of Japanese armor. While much literature describes these female warriors who donned armor and fought on the battlefield, there are very few extant examples. In the late Muromachi period, do-maru and haramaki armours with large breast plates and small waists began to appear. These types were probably made for men of small stature and were shared by both men and women. These types were called hime yoroi (princess armor) in the later period. The social restrictions of the samurai class would have greatly limited a woman's freedom, thus it must have been extremely rare to produce female armor. The Oomishima shrine in Japan contains a do-maru yoroi armor as an Important Cultural Property as it is believed to be the only existing female do-maru armor in Japan. The shrine's tradition claims that this do-maru armor was worn by Princess Tsuru in the battle of Oomishima in the tenth year of Tenmon (1541). Compared to a haramaki armor which opens traditionally from the back with a seita (back plate) which covers the open area, this armor has a seita on the front. This armor is consequently called a semaki armor. The semaki armor should therefore be considered an extremely rare discovery of an unusual female armour.

The following are studies of the armor's exceptional characteristics:

Firstly, the size of the head-protecting section of the helmet is remarkable. Compared to the size of the do, it is substantially bigger and shallower. This enlargement of the helmet size can be attributed to the fact that female warriors had more hair than their male counterparts. The crown area of the helmet utilizes the style of the Kamakura period which allowed space for male warriors to place their mage (topknots).

In addition, unlike a haramaki armor which normally requires assistance to be put on, this armor can be worn without help from the back, similar to a kimono. To spare women from immodest embarrassment and taking into consideration the importance of ease in wearing, this design must have been invented. The breast plate can be easily adjusted and the design allows female warriors to remove it when necessary in order to take rest from the battlefield.

Thirdly, the reverse of the do - composed of small plates - is covered with deerskin, not only to beautify every aspect of the armor but also to allow for a silk kimono to remain undamaged when worn underneath. Behind this extraordinary finishing of the do reverse there must have been the intention of presenting a female warrior as both a noblewoman who could wear a valuable kimono as well as adding grace to her death when her armor was removed.
The red menpo adds a heroic and determined character to the armor with the elegant shortened mustache. The contrasting color of the armor and the mask is rather feminine.

The kote (arm guard) also exhibits a female characteristic. Generally, a kote has a cover on all five fingers. However, the kote of this armor has no cover on its thumbs. As women generally have a weaker grip, this cover-less design enables female warriors to take a firm grip of their swords. This delicate design is particular to women.

The neck plates and sleeves also represent a Japanese view of women. Japanese tradition defines the ideal for women as 'not stretching out nor going forward'. Men's behavior is based on the reverse idea of stretching oneself out to be seen as large as possible. For example, when women sit formally, their knees have to be placed together while seated. Contrarily, men have to extend their knees in order to exhibit their manhood. In keeping with these Japanese customs, the neck plates of this armor are called sudare (curtain) shikoro and the sleeves sudare sode. The reference above explains the reason why this armor has long sleeves.

Lastly, the maedate has a bon-ji and half moon in gold which symbolizes Daikokuten as the wearer's guardian deity. Daikokuten is known as a Goddess of Battle and War in Buddhism, while in Japan since the Heian Period she has been considered a deity of the household. A household deity seems to be appropriate for a female warrior. Daikokuten in Japan is also associated with wealth and prosperity. This large maedate conceals the size of the helmet and exhibits the wearer's pride and self-awareness as a female warrior.


NOTES FOR EDITORS

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