Discovery of a set of extremely unusual female Samurai armour


Fine Japanese Art
6 Nov 2012
London, New Bond Street

A number of legends of female samurai warriors exist in the history of Japanese armour. While much literature describes these female warriors who donned armour 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 armour) 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 armour. The Oomishima shrine in Japan contains a do-maru yoroi armour as an Important Cultural Property as it is believed to be the only existing female do-maru armour in Japan. The shrine's tradition claims that this do-maru armour was worn by Princess Tsuru in the battle of Oomishima in the tenth year of Tenmon (1541). Compared to a haramaki armour which opens traditionally from the back with a seita (back plate) which covers the open area, this armour has a seita on the front. This armour is consequently called a semaki armour. The semaki armour should therefore be considered an extremely rare discovery of an unusual female armour.

The following are studies of the armour'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 utilises the style of the Kamakura period which allowed space for male warriors to place their mage (topknots).

In addition, unlike a haramaki armour which normally requires assistance to be put on, this armour 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 armour 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 armour was removed.
The red menpo adds a heroic and determined character to the armour with the elegant shortened moustache. The contrasting colour of the armour 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 armour 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 behaviour 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 armour are called sudare (curtain) shikoro and the sleeves sudare sode. The reference above explains the reason why this armour has long sleeves.

Lastly, the maedate has a bon-ji and half moon in gold which symbolises 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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