Natali Wiseman

Seattle Art Museum's exhibit Gentleman Warrior: Art of the Samurai features a display of the armor of an 18th-century samurai. Though the function of this military equipment was to protect the vital parts of a warrior from bullets, swords, and arrows, it's also a work of art. From afar, the samurai looked huge and terrifying. But close up, as your life was cut down by his sword, the last things you saw were the beautiful details: the crested helmet; the gorgeous laces of silk that connect the leather, iron, and gold scales; the silver-colored trim on the armored shoes. What a way to go.


1. Kabuto

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This is the helmet. Scholars are of the opinion that the helmet is less armor and more of a sculpture. It has four kinds of decoration, one of which is the maedate (the frontal decoration), which here has the appearance of a half-moon (it's called kuri-hangetsu).


2. Somen

Natali Wiseman

The full face guard is called a somen. (A half face guard, which was more common in the era of the samurai, is called mempo.) As you can see, the face guard is also a striking mask. We can expect the samurai was more concerned about how the mask impressed the opponent he stabbed than how well it protected his eyes and nose. Samurai were gentlemen first, and warriors second. Some somen have a mustache, others have removable fangs and noses. This one has a dragon-like snarl.


3. Dou

This is the chest armor. It's composed of iron plates. This one appears to have been hit hard by a bullet near the heart, but the samurai apparently survived the hit (it did not penetrate the iron). Bullets were introduced to Japan in the 16th century by the Portuguese.


4. Tekko

Natali Wiseman

Just look at the embroidery behind this tekko (or gauntlet, which covers the hand). The time that went into making it must have been considerable. But why did the samurai want to achieve this high level of artistic excellence? Why not be practical? Why waste all of this time on something that will do nothing for him on the battlefield? We must always keep in mind that the samurai was also a poet. Indeed, he composed poems about death. "My life came like dew, disappears like dew," wrote the 16th-century samurai Toyotomi Hideyoshi.


5. Kusazuri

This protects the privates and the thighs of the samurai. It has a part that falls in the front, and two parts for the hips. The straps that connect it to the dou are midnight blue.


6. Suneate

Anyone who has been kicked in the shins will never underappreciate the value of shin guards.

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7. Kogake

These are very handsome armored shoes. Inside will be a tabi (sock) that, like the armor, splits the big toe from the rest of the foot's digits. The reason for the split in the tabi is so that a warrior can, after a battle, and in a moment of peace (the time to contemplate the evanescence of life), slip into his sandals.

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