Gusoku: Japanese Samurai Armor


The samurai were a military class of strong warriors starting in premodern Japan.  They held themselves to high standards of self-discipline and live according to the ethic code of bushido, living “the way of the warrior”. The term samurai was originally used to identify the warriors who were aristocrats, the bushi. Using a wide range of weapons, the samurai needed strong armor in order to protect their bodies.  Their main weapon of choice and used as their symbol was the sword.  Other weapons included bows and arrows, spears, and guns.

Strongly inspired by Confucian practice, the main concepts include deep loyalty and respect, especially to one’s master. Their deep pride and stoicism was exemplified in their refined behavior while at imperial court. Honor and respect were quite prevalent and harsh, to the point that as opposed to dying dishonorably or by defeat, there was an institutionalized ritual suicide of disembowelment, called seppuku.


With most battles being carried out by calvary with a bow or sword, flexible armor was a must.  The flexible armor “Ō-yoroi” or “Great Harness” was developed.  The cuirass, or the armor piece that covers the torso, consisted of multiple smaller plates to allow for movement and flexibility.  There are two shoulder pieces that fall down to protect any exposed underarm. There would be a lot of exposure when fighting with arms being raised.  Then there is a skirt made from the same linked plates that protect both the lower abdomen and thighs.  The armor protecting the arms consisted of both mail and solid plates. This allows for the protection to be defensive but suitable for great movements. 

Helmets were solid iron plates, not the ones used for the body as it would be more flimsy. Traditionally, the helmets have a pointed shape called ‘shii-nari’, or acorn-shaped. Besides the main iron piece that covers the skull, there are flaps hanging from the top. These are made to protect the neck from injury. The neck guard is called a shikoro. Shikoros are often made of multiple covered plates, normally silk or various leathers.

Samurai Gusokus on Display

Traditional Samurai Gusoku
Gusoku on display at the British Museum

Above is a set of ceremonial Gushoku armor but made into a stand. This set comes form the Edo period, one of the most prominent and the height of the samurai. Took place in the 18th century.

Traditional Samurai Gusoku
Gusoku armor on display at the Met

This set is quite unique as it is a revival of earlier styles present during the Edo period. But, the overall construction is that of classical 16th century Gushoku. During this time, as you can see, the armor was covered in cloth as it was based off of classical armor. The shape is typical with being boxy in order to allow for the most protection.

Periods of Armor

There are three different periods of gusoku armor: ancient, classical, and modern.

Ancient armor is classified as the armor that was worn up until the 10th century. Unfortunately, not much ancient armor has been preserved. But it is known that there was continental Chinese and Korean influence in the armor.

Classical armor, worn between the 10th and 15th centuries, were considered to be Japan’s ideas and creations brought to life. This is the period in which Japanese armor got its distinct figure and look of the classic gusoku, with the flexible multi-plated protection.

Lastly, there is the modern period of armor. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, this era is the one with most variety in the design of the gusoku. This is when different designs and materials were used most often. This included an increased use of leather and silk coverings.

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