Not to be outdone by their European counterparts, the warriors of Japan decided to blacksmith their way into the armor game around the 4th century A.D. The first samurai armor cuirass was called “tanko,” maybe because it made the samurai as tough and invincible as a military tank… but since tanks didn’t exist, it’s more likely because “tanko” means “short armor,” alluding to the fact that this cuirass rested on the hips. The tanko was composed of several triangular plates that were tightly laced together with leather thongs.
As time traveled onward, tanko was replaced by a new type of scale armor that hung from the shoulders and thus was called “keiko” or “hanging armor.” Popular during the 6th to 9th centuries, this hourglass-shaped cuirass led to an era of confusion as to whether the silhouette one was looking at belonged to a fierce warrior or a bodacious babe. Making keiko involved six different types and sizes of scales – quite the complex process.
The Heian period (794-1185) brought with it the more familiar style of Japanese chest armor called the “dou.” The lighter, less expensive “do-maru” was worn by lesser samurai and retainers, while the classic armor called “o-yoroi” was mostly worn by high-ranking samurai on horseback. The o-yoroi favored protection over mobility and was rather a heavy and cumbersome piece. This armor was made of leather and iron plates and scales laced together in the “lamellar” style. It was also coated in brightly-colored lacquer to protect against the harsh Japanese climate and to give the samurai an opportunity to learn which hues complemented his skin tone.
In the 1500s, with the introduction of firearms, Japan switched from lamellar armor to steel plate armor that could protect against bullets. Even as Japan entered a period of peace, samurai continued to wear armor as a status symbol. The Edo period (1603-1868) came with an uprising of civil strife, duels, assassinations, and peasant revolts – awesome for a movie, paranoia-inducing in real life. This resulted in the popularization of chain armor jackets and armored sleeves that could be worn hidden under regular clothes. Samurai during this period handled internal security, so they continued to wear chain armor, shin and arm protection, and forehead covers. Armor continued to be worn in Japan until the end of the samurai era in the 1860s.
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