Military Review

Samurai Armor and Famous Japanese Lacquer

In the summer mountains
Somewhere a tree collapsed with a crash -

distant echo.
Matsuo Basho (1644 -1694). Translation by A. Dolina

Not so long ago, a conversation about Japanese came into VO for the umpteenth time. weapons and Japanese armor. And again, it was very surprising to read about wood armor and questions about "Japanese varnish." That is, someone somewhere clearly heard a ringing, but ... does not know where he is. However, if there is a question, how did Japanese armor differ from all the others, then there should be an answer. And this will be discussed in this article. Since materials on Japanese armor at the VO have already been published, there is no point in repeating them. But to focus on some interesting details, like the same famous varnish, why not?

When you look at the Japanese armor up close, the first thing you see is colored cords. The plates under them are perceived as a background. (Tokyo National Museum)

So let's start with the main difference. And it was this: if the European armor of the era of chain mail consisted of chain mail and "metal scales", then the Japanese armor at that time was made up of plates that were interconnected with colored cords. Further, both the Chinese and the same Europeans in armor all had approximately the same size. They were usually riveted on the skin or fabric, both outside and inside, with the heads of the rivets protruding outside, gilded or decorated with decorative sockets.

Japanese sword V - VI centuries. (Tokyo National Museum)

The Japanese classical armor of the Heian epoch (as o-eroy, haramaki-do and do-maru) consisted of plates of three types - narrow with one row of holes, wider with two rows, and very wide - with three. The plates with two rows of holes, called o-arame, were in most armor and this was the main difference between ancient armor. The plate had 13 holes: five on top (large in size, cadate-no-ana) and 8 on the bottom (sieve-t -ji-no-ana - “small holes”). When the armor was collected, the plates were superimposed on each other in such a way that each of them would half cover the one that was on her right side. At the beginning, and then at the end of each row, one more plate was added that had one row of holes, so that the “armor” turned out to be double the thickness!

If, however, sikime-zane plates with three rows of holes were used, then all three plates superimposed on each other, so that in the end it gave a triple thickness! But the weight of such armor was significant, so in this case the plates were tried to be made of leather. Although leather plates made of durable "plantar leather", and besides, two three-three rows superimposed one upon the other, provided very good protection, with the weight of armor much less than that assembled from plates made of metal.

Today, quite a lot of interesting literature is published in English on Japanese armor, and not only Stephen Turnbull alone. This brochure, for example, despite the fact that it contains only 30 pages, gives an exhaustive description of Japanese armor. And all because it was made by experts of the Royal Arsenal in Leeds.

In the 13th century, thinner kozane records appeared, which also had all along 13 holes. That is, the holes for the cords in them were the same as in the old o-arame, but they themselves have become much narrower. The weight of armor from such plates immediately decreased, because now they had less metal than before, but the required number of plates that needed to be forged, cut holes in them, and most importantly, cover them with protective varnish and tie them together, has increased a lot.

Page from this brochure. It shows the armor donated to King James Y. I by Shogun Tokugawa Hidedead in 1610.

However, the assembly technology of such armor was also improved and somewhat simplified. If, for example, each of the plates was previously varnished separately, then now of them the strips were first collected, and only now they were all varnished simultaneously. The process of making armor has accelerated, but they themselves, albeit slightly, have become cheaper. Then, in the XIV century, new yojane records appeared, which were wider than the previous kozane.

Haramaki-to armor with shoulder pads from the armor of o-roy. Epoch of Momoyama, XVI century. (Tokyo National Museum)

In any case, the technology of connecting the plates with the help of cords was very laborious, although at first glance it was not particularly difficult - sit yourself, and pull the cords into the holes so that one plate is bound to another. But it was a real art, which had its name - odoshi, because it was required to link the plates so that their ranks did not sag and did not shift.

Reconstruction of the armor o-roy. (Tokyo National Museum)

Of course, sagging, like stretching of cords, whether they are made of leather or silk, was never completely avoided, since they simply could not but stretch under the weight of the plates. Therefore, the masters-armors in Japan have always had a lot of work. They tried to increase the rigidity of the armor by tying the yojane plates onto the leather strip. But ... in any case, the skin is the skin, and as soon as it got wet, how hard it was to lose, stretch, and the rows of plates spread out to the sides.

Another reconstruction of the armor of the Edo era, XVII century. (Tokyo National Museum)

Shoulders of o-sode from this armor bear the emblem of the Ashikaga clan - the color of pavlon. (Tokyo National Museum)

That is, before the meeting with the Europeans, neither chain mail nor solid-metal armor were used in Japan. But in the decoration of these plates fantasy masters knew no bounds! But first of all, it should be noted that the plates of Japanese armor were always necessarily covered with the famous Urus varnish. Europeans cleaned their chain mail of rust in barrels of sand. Armor from solid-forged plates were subjected to bluing, gilding, silvering, painting. But the Japanese preferred savings of varnishing with all this technique! It would seem, why in this difficult? I took a brush, dipped it in varnish, smeared it, dried it and it was done! But in fact, this process was much more laborious and complex, and not everyone knows about it outside of Japan.

Samurai Armor and Famous Japanese Lacquer

Breastplate with imitation plates and cords, completely filled with varnish. (Tokyo National Museum)

To begin with, the collection of the juice of a lacquer tree is not an easy task, because this juice is very poisonous. Then - the lacquer coating should be applied in several layers, and between each varnish should be carefully polished all surfaces of varnished products using emery stones, charcoal and water. All this is troublesome, but ... familiar and understandable. Drying products coated with Japanese varnish, is also not quite as if you used oil or nitrolak.

The rare lacing of Japanese armor, which was used on later armor like the Tosi gusoku, made it possible to see the plates of the armor much better. (Tokyo National Museum)

The fact is that the lacquer of the Urusi needs moisture (!), Humidity and ... coolness to dry completely! That is, if you dry products from it under the sun, nothing will come of it! Japanese masters used special cabinets for drying varnished products in the past, arranged so that water flowed along their walls, and where the ideal humidity was maintained in the order of 80-85% and the temperature was not higher than 30 ° degrees. Drying time, and it would be more correct to say - polymerization of varnish, while it was equal to 4-24 hours.

Here is the famous lacquered tree in the summer.

The easiest way, of course, would be to take a metal plate, paint it, say, black, red or brown, or gild it and varnish it. And often this is exactly what the Japanese did, avoiding unnecessary trouble and getting an acceptable result in all respects. But ... the Japanese would not be Japanese if they did not try to create a textured finish of the plates, which would not be spoiled by the blows and would also be pleasant to the touch. For this, in the last few layers of lacquer, the master armors introduced, for example, baked clay (because of this, there was even a completely wrong opinion that the plates in Japanese armor had a ceramic coating!), Sea sand, pieces of hardened varnish, golden powder, or even ordinary land. They painted the plates before varnishing is very simple: black with soot, red with cinnabar; for brown, a mixture of red and black colors was used.

With the help of lacquer, the Japanese did not only their armor, but also a lot of beautiful and useful things: screens, tables, tea trays and all kinds of caskets, well, for example, such as this "cosmetic bag" made in the Kamakura era, XIII century . (Tokyo National Museum)

"Cosmetic Bag" - "Birds", Kamakura era, XIII century. (Tokyo National Museum)

For a more decorative effect after the 2-3 first lacquer varnishes, the masters sprinkled the plates with metal filings, pieces of nacre or even chopped straw, and then again varnished in several layers, and used both transparent varnish and color. Working in this way, they produced plates with a surface that mimics wrinkled skin, tree bark, the same bamboo, rusty iron (the motif, by the way, is very popular in Japan!), Etc. Finishing just under red-brown rusty iron was popular in later japanese armor. The reason - the spread of the cult of tea, because good tea had a rich brown color. In addition, the coating of red-brown lacquer made it possible to create the appearance of iron, corroded with rust. And the Japanese literally raved (and rave!) "Old", adore old utensils, so it is not surprising, not to mention the fact that the rust itself was not there in principle!

The box of the Muromachi era, the XVI century. (Tokyo National Museum)

It is believed, and this varnish in Japan became known thanks to Prince Yamato Takeru, who killed his own brother, and then the dragon and accomplished many more different feats. According to legend, he accidentally broke a branch of a tree with bright red foliage. A beautiful, brilliant juice flowed from the break, and for some reason it occurred to the prince to order his servants to collect it and cover his favorite dishes with it. After that, she gained a very beautiful look and extraordinary strength, which the prince really liked. According to another version, the prince during the hunt wounded a boar, but he could not finish it off. Then he broke a branch of a lacquer tree, smeared an arrowhead on it with juice and, since the juice of this was very poisonous, killed him.

Japanese lacquer is so durable and resistant to heat that even teapots are covered with it! Edo Epoch, XVIII century

Not surprisingly, the plates, decorated in such a complicated way, were really very beautiful and could withstand all the vagaries of the Japanese climate. But you can imagine the whole amount of labor that needed to be spent in order to varnish several hundred (!) Such records, which are necessary for traditional type armor, not to mention tens of meters of leather or silk cords, which required them to be joined. Therefore, beauty - beauty, but also the manufacturability, strength and reliability of armor should also be taken into account. In addition, such armor was heavy to wear. It was necessary to get into them under the rain, as they got wet and their weight grew very much. God forbid in the wet armor to be in the cold - lacing froze and it was impossible to take them off, you had to warm up by the fire. Naturally, the lacing got dirty and occasionally had to be dismissed and washed, and then to collect the armor again. They also got ants, lice and fleas, which caused the owners of the armor a lot of inconvenience, that is, the high qualities of the plates themselves devalued the way they were joined!

It so happened that I was lucky to be born in an old wooden house, where there were a lot of old things. One of them is this Chinese lacquer box (and in China the lacquer tree is also growing!), Finished in the Chinese style - that is, painted with gold and applications of mother-of-pearl and ivory.

Trade with the Portuguese led to the emergence of Namban-do armor (“Southern barbarians' armor”), which were modeled on the European ones. For example, the hatamune-do was an ordinary European cuirass with a stiffener protruding from the front and a traditional Kusazuri skirt attached to it. Moreover, even in this case, the polished metal, as the "white armor" in Europe, these plates did not shine. Most often, they were covered with the same lacquer - most often brown, which had both a utilitarian value and helped to introduce a purely foreign thing into the Japanese world of perception of form and content.

Vietnamese took over the skill of working with varnish, and they themselves began to make such boxes, which were supplied to the USSR in the 70 years of the last century. Before us is a pattern of egg shell inlays. It is pasted on paper, cut out the pattern, and already its paper up pasted on varnish. Then the paper is grinded, the product is again varnished and polished again until the shell ceases to stand out above the main background. Then put the last layer and the product is ready. Such a low-key, mean beauty.

One of the manifestations of the decline in the weapon case was the revival of old weapons styles, a trend that received a significant stimulus thanks to the book of the historian Arai Hakuseki "Honto Gunkiko" published in 1725. Khakuseki adored old styles of armor type, and blacksmiths of that time tried to reproduce them to the needs of the public, sometimes creating strange and incredible mixtures of old and new armor that had no practical significance. By the way, the funniest samurai armor, even in many museums and private collections, was made ... after the end of World War II and the occupation of Japan by American troops. Then the Japanese cities lay in ruins, the factories did not work, but as life went on, the Japanese began to produce souvenirs for American soldiers and officers. These were, first of all, skillfully made models of temples, junks and Japanese samurai armor, since the same swords were forbidden by the occupation authorities. But not to make souvenir battens from real metal? He must be forged, and where will you take him ?! But there were plenty of papers all around - and it was from her, covered with all the same famous Japanese varnish, that armor did. Moreover, they assured their customers that this is the real antiquity, and so it was always with them! From here, by the way, there was talk that the samurai’s armor was record-breaking in weight and made of pressed paper and bamboo plates!

Vietnamese chess inlaid with mother of pearl is also from that era.

However, it should be emphasized that the Japanese would never have any armor at all, either from metal or paper, if not ... yes-yes, the natural-geographical conditions in which they lived on their islands, and precisely because of which grew the famous lacquer tree, which gave much-needed varnish urus! And that is why the haiku about summer was chosen as the epigraph to this chapter. After all, it is collected only at the beginning of summer (June-July), when the growth of foliage is most intense ...

Another casket "from there" with the image of the islands of the South China Sea. Very simple and unsophisticated image, but it's nice to use this box.

By the way, it’s still not clear how the ancestors of today's Japanese thought of using the juice of a lacquered tree as a lacquer. What helped them in this? Natural observation? Lucky case? Who knows? But be that as it may, Japan owes precisely this varnish that so many of the armor made by its masters have survived to this day, despite all the vicissitudes of its climate, and even today they delight our eyes.
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  1. Blue cop
    Blue cop 11 January 2018 07: 20
    Always interested in the armor details
    Japanese armor for the accuracy of manufacturing is probably at the top of the pyramid
    And lightness and functionality are important bonuses.
  2. Vard
    Vard 11 January 2018 07: 57
    The Japanese katana sword was made of very fragile metal ... this explains why they did not repel the blows of another sword, that is, they did not fencing, but relied on an accurate and quick strike ...
    1. marline
      marline 11 January 2018 16: 44
      Quote: Vard
      The Japanese Katan sword was made of very fragile metal ...

      Just like good European swords. I advise you to look at the metallography of medieval European swords of Alan Williams. Similar swords in Europe have been made since antiquity. In fact, technologically, Europe was ahead of Japan by several centuries, if not millennia.
      Quote: Vard
      this explains why they did not repel the blows of another sword, that is, they did not fencing, but relied on an accurate and quick strike ...

      Again a myth. In European fencing, hard blocks began to be used only in modern times, i.e. The "parade-riposte" system appeared in fact only in the high French school of fencing with swords. Until this time, the stresso tempo system dominated (counterattack at the pace), i.e. the same "relied on an accurate and quick punch ...". This is very well written by John Clements, you can even read about all sorts of "secret blows", such as the "blow of the king" in A. Dume’s novels. And in a battle in armor, this style of fencing is preferable.
      1. Mikado
        Mikado 11 January 2018 21: 47
        those. the same "rely on an accurate and quick punch ...".

        I think the best fast and accurate hit is the yai movement. How much such a duel can be considered honest - you can write treatises. request and he also had his masters!
        1. marline
          marline 11 January 2018 23: 41
          Quote: Mikado
          I think the best fast and accurate hit is the yai movement.

          Europeans will not agree with you. smile I remember:
          Well, sir, where is your passado?

          And also the legend that once the flash attack was a terribly secret blow from professional Italian bracers. And according to legend, no one then could repel this blow and it was absolute and deadly until one Brether boasting once declared that it would leave alive an opponent who could repel his blow. And it so happened that his opponent was an inexperienced young man. And at the time of the flash attack, this young man slipped on a banana peel and dodged the blow. Moreover, the young man was still observant and soon all of Italy already knew the secret of the flash attack and the way to evade it ...
          In general, no absolute blow, of course, exists. There were only secret ones - all the effectiveness of which remained until only a few knew about these attacks. Now this is not there either - the parade and ripost rule the ball. However, all this is true only as long as the rivals don’t put on armor, of course ...
          1. Mikado
            Mikado 12 January 2018 00: 43
            Interestingly told, I bow! hi good
            There were only secret ones - all the effectiveness of which remained until only a few knew about these attacks.

            for there were no witnesses left ... what
  3. Curious
    Curious 11 January 2018 08: 51
    "By the way, it is still incomprehensible how the ancestors of today's Japanese thought up using lacquer tree juice as a lacquer. What helped them in this? Natural observation? Lucky chance? Who knows?"
    As a decorative coating, the varnish tree juice was obviously the first to be applied by the Chinese.
    In general, lacquer tree juice has been used in Southeast Asia for a very long time. In the same Japan, they find lacquered objects that are about 6000 years old. Only used varnish to harden spears and arrows, i.e. exclusively as a reinforcing coating.
    At first, varnish was written, like ink, using bamboo sticks, later it was used for protective and decorative purposes: they covered dishes for food, and then ceremonial vessels. Since the reign of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1027-256 BC), the application of varnish has expanded - they began to decorate carriages, teams, bows and arrows, as well as other objects. The use of varnish is regulated by the official charter. At the same time, varnish began to be mixed with gold. Legends have come that in the east of China during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) they knew how to make varnishes of great beauty [5]. During this period, the use of varnish increased even more. The first samples of varnish painting appeared on utensils, silk, paper.

    Chinese masters did not reveal technological secrets of varnishing. Varnishes were not only a luxury item: varnish coatings extended the life of items in a humid tropical climate. But gradually, despite the precautions, these secrets became known in the countries of Southeast Asia, which happened simultaneously with the spread of Buddhism. In addition, Chinese varnishes and varnishes fell into neighboring countries during military conflicts and through trade contacts. Apparently, the first countries to export varnishes were Korea and Japan. The first painted varnish products in ancient Joseon (Korea) began to be made after the conquest of the country by the Han forces (108 BC). And in the future, for many centuries, the art of Korea was under the influence of China.

    The earliest varnishes of Japan (VI century AD) - Chinese production. Trade contacts of the ancient Japanese state of Yamoto with China were especially intense in the 701rd-XNUMXth centuries. But despite the fact that the earliest report on the manufacture of varnish, referred to by the Japanese, is the Taichory Code (XNUMX), the technology for the production of varnish was brought to Japan in the VI-VII centuries. BC. from China through Korea.
    Some varnishes have up to 200 layers of various compositions, identical with each other only in that their film former is urushiol. But almost every layer differs from the neighboring one in the composition of the pigment part, modifiers and plasticizers. Each juice processing operation, each composition, application or surface treatment operation had its own name.
    In a word, the topic is very interesting. Unfortunately, there is practically no Russian-language literature on the history of Japanese varnish, such as, for example, Rague B. von. A history of Japanese lacquerwork. Toronto: Univ. Toronto press, 1976.
  4. marline
    marline 11 January 2018 08: 59
    Thank you for the excellent article with wonderful photos, Vyacheslav Olegovich.
    According to the article, I would like to clarify one point:
    That is, before meeting with the Europeans, neither chain mail nor all-forged armor was used in Japan.

    Perhaps I am mistaken, but the Japanese weaved their own chain mail with special weaving and called "kusari", but the European "namban-kusari". And it seems that even Stephen Turnbull had a mention that chain mail was worn by a ninja when they did not need stealth. So, after all, did the Japanese have their chain mail before meeting the Europeans or not?
    1. kalibr
      11 January 2018 10: 12
      I read that no. Just weaving Japanese and European chain mail was different!
      1. marline
        marline 11 January 2018 10: 19
        Quote: kalibr
        I read that no.

        Clear, thanks for the prompt response.
        Quote: kalibr
        Just weaving Japanese and European chain mail was different!

        Yes, weaving them with a rhombus - it does not look too reliable, but it is beautiful. Actually, because of this, Japanese chain mail is well remembered.
  5. XII Legion
    XII Legion 11 January 2018 09: 09
    Everything in the Japanese is elegant and at the same time soundly
    As they say - you will not drink centuries of experience))
    Thank you!
    1. Cxnumx
      Cxnumx 11 January 2018 12: 45
      Quote: XII Legion
      Everything in the Japanese is elegant and at the same time soundly

      you forgot about the "hemorrhoids")) the manufacture of chain mail against the background of this armor looks much easier)) and even the simplicity of operation is not comparable at all)
      1. XII Legion
        XII Legion 11 January 2018 14: 27
        the manufacture of chain mail against the background of this armor looks much easier)) and even the ease of operation is not comparable at all

        That yes
        But it is worth remembering that in Japan there was an "eastern" workforce - more hardworking, assiduous and less susceptible to "hemorrhoids"))
      2. marline
        marline 11 January 2018 15: 12
        Quote: K0
        making chain mail against the background of this armor looks much easier))

        I wouldn’t say ... Alan Williams estimates the number of rings in a chain mail shirt from 28 to 50 thousand. And the laboriousness of making chain mail is 1000 man-hours, or 750 man-hours when using welded rings. So perseverance is a hallmark of the armourers of the Middle Ages.
  6. Curious
    Curious 11 January 2018 13: 32
    "That is, before the meeting with the Europeans, neither chain mail nor all-forged armor was used in Japan."
    With regard to chain mail, the statement is extremely controversial, even erroneous.
    What is chain mail. This is armor woven from iron rings. Nowhere does it stipulate that the rings should be brazed, riveted, etc. The principal sign is protective armor made of iron rings.
    Such armor in Japan appeared in the fourteenth century, that is, 200 years before the advent of Europeans.
    The kusari chain mail was made up of round and elliptical rings, the latter sometimes doubled. At first they were used to connect the plates of the sleeves, but no matter what part of the armor they were used for, they were always placed on top of the woven base, which is clearly visible in the figure.

    Thus, Japanese chain mail from, say, “international”, had the following differences.
    Rings were sewn onto fabric, the basis of weaving was mainly a rhombus, unlike European chain mail. Weaving 8 in 1 and 6 in 1 were used as standard. Another significant difference is that the joint of each of the rings was not riveted (not welded). This ring design reduced the protective properties of Japanese chain mail.
    And with the advent of Europeans, a namban appeared - the hussars - "chain mail of the southern barbarians."
    But this does not cancel the presence of chain mail in Japan before the arrival of Europeans.
    1. marline
      marline 11 January 2018 15: 13
      Quote: Curious
      [Such armor in Japan appeared in the fourteenth century, that is, 200 years before the advent of Europeans.

      All the same before. Thanks for the info, Victor.
  7. Some kind of compote
    Some kind of compote 11 January 2018 14: 15
    What I especially like is the details and details.
    For such a "stump" in this thread - that’s it)
    Thanks to the author soldier
    1. Some kind of compote
      Some kind of compote 11 January 2018 15: 25
      By "stump" I meant myself
      1. Mikado
        Mikado 11 January 2018 17: 10
        Don’t blame yourself! drinks In general, "Stump" - the capital of Cambodia wink drinks
  8. Mikhail3
    Mikhail3 11 January 2018 19: 59
    Great article. It is interesting in the case.
  9. Paranoid50
    Paranoid50 12 January 2018 01: 08
    For the article - home arigato !!! Urusi's magic varnish ...
    nevertheless, it is not clear how the ancestors of today's Japanese thought up using lacquer tree juice as lacquer. What helped them in this? Natural observation? Lucky case? Who knows?
    Paranoid-nationalist version: six thousand years ago, lacquer tree seedlings were brought to the islands ... by ancient Rus - from there the name "Urusi" comes from. Together with the seedlings, the Rus transferred the islanders and technology. Unfortunately, in Russia itself all the lacquer trees were cut down by the ancient "black lumberjacks" and sold "round timber" to the ancient Chinese. So that we have - do not store .... wassat But pretty paranoia. Once again, many thanks for the article. hi And, as soon as Basho began her lyrical introduction, then, as an epilogue, it will not hurt a bit of almost modern Japanese lyrics:
  10. Albatroz
    Albatroz 12 January 2018 07: 56
    Interesting article!
  11. Weyland
    Weyland 12 January 2018 21: 34
    I read as a child that varnishing boxes, etc. using sumac juice in those parts, they did this: in the summer they waited for complete calm and went far into the sea so that not a single speck of dust would spoil the coating - and only now I learned that high humidity was also shown for the polymerization of varnish!