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Telling the story of 400 years of British royal contact with Japan

Iwai Yozaemon (active 1585-1610)

Armour (dōmaru) 1580 - 1610

Iron, gilt-copper alloy, shakudō, lacquer, silk, horsehair, deerskin | 161.0 × 72.0 × 70.5 cm (overall, approx., when mounted) (whole object) | RCIN 71611

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This splendid and understated armour was sent to James I of England by Tokugawa Hidetada, third son of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who ruled as the second shōgun of the Tokugawa dynasty from 1605 to 1623. Some sources have suggested that the armour may once have been owned by Takeda Katsuyori (1546 – 82), a daimyō who had fought, and lost, against Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Tenmokuzan in 1582.

The armour is of the body-wrapped (dōmaru) type, which hinges around the body and fastens on the right. The ‘pumpkin-shaped’ helmet (akodanari kabuto) is signed by Iwai Yozaemon, one of the main armourers to the ruling Tokugawa family. Armours by Iwai Yozaemon in other European royal collections indicate that this was a popular diplomatic gift from the Tokugawa family, easily available from a regular and reliable source.

The helmet has a very wide, almost flat neck guard (shikoro), small turn-backs (fukikaeshi) and visor (mabizashi) decorated in gold lacquer with stylised clouds. The akodanari helmet has prominent vertical rivet lines and is lacquered black. A raised area at the back of the helmet bowl may have been designed to accommodate the chonmage, the samurai hairstyle which consisted of a shaved pate with the hair oiled and tied at the back of the head in a queue. This distinctive form of helmet was extremely popular during the Muromachi period (1392–1573) and the traditional style would have appealed to the Tokugawa family who were conservative in their tastes. The face-mask (sōmen) has a fearsome appearance, although the whiskers have possibly been trimmed over the years.

Much of the armour is laced in red and blue silk in a chequerboard pattern. The lamellae (kozane) are individual pieces of iron lacquered and laced together – a technique known as hon-kozane (‘true’ kozane), which creates a more flexible armour.

Continuing the conservative style, the shoulder guards (
sode) are very large for an armour of this period. The solid iron upper areas of the cuirass () are decorated with gold lacquer dragons whose red lacquer tongues chase stylised clouds, possibly symbolising the Buddhist pearl of enlightenment, on a
black lacquer ground. The rims (fukurin) and other metal fittings are of engraved and pierced shakudō and gilt-copper alloy. Interestingly, the small fittings to secure the cuirass have a discreet motif of a paulownia (kiri) leaf, an imperial symbol later adopted by the Tokugawa family. The sleeves (kote) are decorated in a similar fashion and have fine, though faded, silk with auspicious motifs and areas of iron mail. The greaves (suneate) are decorated with further stylised clouds in gold lacquer on black.

Text adapted from Japan: Courts and Culture (2020).