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Helmet with Half-Face Mask, approx. 1615–1650

Samurai Helmet

Samurai helmet with a half-face mask, approx. 1615–1650. Japan. Edo period (1615–1868). Iron, leather, laminated paper, lacquer, and textile. Gift of Dr. William A. Galeno, B87M22.

Samurai Helmet (detail)

Samurai helmet (detail; B87M22).

Samurai Helmet
Samurai Helmet (detail)

What are the three components of armor found here?
The main element is a helmet (kabuto) with a two-lobed projection attached at the back of the bowl and ornamental ridges fanning out from the crest. Suspended at the back and sides is a six-tiered neck guard. Completing the assembly is a red half-mask—complete with wrinkles, teeth, and bristling facial hair—rising above a four-tiered throat guard.

Who might have worn this helmet?
High-ranking samurai from the 1500s to the 1800s wore flamboyant helmets designed and produced according to their specifications.

What is the purpose of such a helmet?
Beyond the obvious need for defense, the creation of such equipment emerged from the samurai’s desire to stand out on the battlefield. A helmet’s distinctive features, especially the shaped attachments that appear on many examples, identified the wearer and ensured that his actions were visible to all. Visual symbols of leadership, these helmets set apart those who were morally accountable for battlefield decisions, according to the samurai code. They could also be used to identify warriors after death, and were part of the military regalia in which they were buried.

Some elements, such as this mask, were surely meant to intimidate opponents: the red face, aggressive expression and facial hair would create a frightening impression. Red was a color thought to ward off evil, and made the warrior resemble one of a host of powerful, red-faced deities familiar in Japanese lore.

How was this type of armor made?
The helmet bowl is made of iron, but the projections at the top appear to have been built up first with leather then with laminated paper coated with layers of dark-brown lacquer (necessary for waterproofing). The back of the helmet was finished with red lacquer, and the front was coated to resemble oxidized iron. The neck guard on this helmet consists of six horizontal iron bands, coated with lacquer and laced together with turquoise-colored silk cords. The throat guard, fastened at the lower edge of the face cover, is similarly constructed. Iron was also used for the mask, though the nose was formed separately and secured with pins, allowing for removal. The high level of craftsmanship and expensive materials used here are indicative of the samurai’s wealth and status; ordinary warriors would not be able to afford such protection.

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