The samurai were an elite class of soldiers and officials. They were retained by feudal lords called daimyo from whose ranks rose the shogun, military leaders who effectively ruled Japan between 1192 and 1868.
Early 19th century
Metal, papier-mache, lacquer, gold, silk
Did you know?
The Japanese word samurai means 'one who serves'.
Samurai means ‘one who serves’, and members of the samurai caste followed a strict code of conduct known as bushido, or ‘the way of the warrior’.
Wearing the correct armour and carrying the right weapons were vital aspects of being a samurai.
This splendid suit of armour dates from the early 19th century. By this time, Japan was a relatively peaceful country and armour was worn more for show than for practical reasons.
Made from black-lacquered iron plates tied together, the armour was flexible, allowing its wearer to move freely. The armoured skirt, called a kusazuri, shields the thighs, while the arm coverings combine protective chain mail with fine blue silk. The metal face mask, or mempō, with its bristling moustache, was designed to strike fear into the enemy.
The samurai were the only class allowed to carry two swords - a symbol of their high status. Different styles were popular at different times, but during the Edo period (1600-1868) the long katana sword and shorter companion sword known as a wakizashi were most commonly worn. For formal ceremonial occasions, these were replaced with a slung sword or tachi and a dagger.
When the Emperor regained power in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, he began to issue laws to reduce the power and status of the samurai class. Samurai were no longer permitted to carry swords in public and a national army was established which conscripted men from across society.