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Samurai Helmets (kynosarges.org)
132 points by cnahr 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 83 comments

While beautiful, most of these pieces are primarily ceremonial or intended for generals who would rarely involve themselves on the battlefield†.

Almost all of these pieces date from after the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate (c. 1600). From 1600 to 1850 Japan experienced a stable period marked by very little real armed conflict. During this time, the samurai transitioned from soldiers to what were effectively mid-level bureaucrats. However, unlike most bureaucrats, they managed to retain all of the trappings of a martial lifestyle, including ornate armor, beautiful swords, and the occasional mortal duel. It was during this time of relative peace that these (sometimes ridiculous) fashion pieces developed, somewhat complicated by the tradition of incorporating pieces of much, much older helmets into the "core" of the helmets (one of the helmets in the OP has a core dating from the 14th century, but was significantly embellished later on).

†This is generally true of what arms and armor have survived from around the world. The stuff that was actually used rusted away long ago; the highest chance for survival was to have been so valuable that no one dared to actually take it onto a battlefield.

> and the occasional mortal duel.

Duels under Tokugawa were forbidden and punishable by death of both opponents. The only fighting that samurai could see was terrorizing of unarmed peasants.

Samurai were not warriors in European sense but more of a mob enforcers. Good for terrorizing peasants not really fit for fighting in any military sense.

During Meiji when peasants got professional military training and leadership samurai became toothless.

[BUSHIDO: WAY OF TOTAL BULLSHIT] https://www.tofugu.com/japan/bushido/

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Kumamoto_Castle

[2] https://www.historynet.com/satsuma-rebellion-satsuma-clan-sa...

That is during the Shogunate. Before the unification, The samurai were involved with actual on field battles.

Mostly using arrows not swords. But yumi is inferior weapon compared to reflexive bow used by Chinese, Korean, Mongol or Turkic soldiers.

Also if you look at any Japanese castle (Himeji had been well preserved by US Bomber Command for navigational purposes) you will quickly realize that any continental army will take at most a week to dry it's moats and dig mines under it's wall. Fortunately Japan never had seen invading army on its soil.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yumi

[2] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Composite_bow

This samurai / bushido hype is so much out of proportion and simply untrue.

While in the same time real history of Asia is full of military class of exceptional value. Indian Rajput, Islamic Gunpowder Empires, Malays, Mongols - to name just a few






I am not going to compare medieval continental technology to medieval Japan because that would be against the spirit of comparison. Japan was pretty closed society even when they traded with the continent. While it is true that the continent saw cutting edge tech in terms of unbalanced battle situations, we can surely appreciate the Japanese stuff for it's aesthetic vibe.

If Japan was suddenly in the continent, I am sure they would have to compete and modify their war society like the rest did. But the root aesthetics would be the same.

I highly recommend checking out the Samurai Collection[1] referenced here, if you can get to one of its showings – it travels around quite regularly. The exhibit is great, both in size (good, but not overwhelming) and presentation details. Especially the full (O-yoroi) armor, which is in transparent cases that let you get up close on all sides to see how the armor is constructed, and the many levels of artisanship that go into each piece.

Also, the exhibition venues will often do things like find local artisans to demonstrate related skills. E.g. I demoed making the armor lacing braids (as much as 200-400 yards, in reeled silk, per suit!) when the show was at the Portland Art Museum.

[1] http://samuraicollection.org/aboutus_history.html

After looking at pictures of a bunch of samurai helmets, I came to a realization that Darth Vader's helmet is more or less the shape of a samurai helmet. Maybe this should have been obvious to me (especially being a fan of the Hidden Fortress film), but it was a cool discovery for me.

George Lucas was inspired by samurai films. This film are called jidai seki (period films). From jidai --> jedi. Also C3PO and R2D2 are inspired by the couple of mongrels in Hidden Fortress.

This is also why the Jedi (at least in the earlier films) use two hands to hold their lightsabers. It's the Japanese style. Of course, Samurai swords were two-handed because they were heavy, due to the poor quality of steel available. A light saber "blade" would presumably weigh nothing, so it would make more sense to hold it one handed like a, well, saber.

A master of the more technologically advanced European saber would probably cut a Katana-wielding Samurai to ribbons. Good thing the Samurai would probably just shoot him from horseback anyway.

You might enjoy some Scholagladitoria videos covering just such topics. As with most things the question of “what wins” between various swords is rarely straightforward, and always involves a lot of context. A shitty katana vs a splendid saber wouldn’t be interesting, but there were plenty of garbage pieces of both, along with lots of masterworks. Given even quality swords and equal skill, the determining factors seem to be the kind of fight. In a 1-1 unarmoured duel a rapier is hard to beat; no surprise since it evolved for just that reason. You’d hate to use a rapier on an armored opponent, one on horseback, or multiple foes though. A katana has less reach, is better at cutting and worse at thrusting, and is weighted more towards the blade. That’s a plus in some regards, and a minus in others. A saber is a very fine cutting weapon, but terrible in the thrust; it excels on horseback and on the ground. A saber will generally have the benefit of more protection for the hand and forearm, while the tsuba on a katana is pretty minimal. However a saber vs. armor is a disaster, while the katana can punch through some plate in the thrust. For thick armor you’d really want a longsword with a bodkin point, or a bludgeon.

It just depends on context and skill.

I've been mulling the cause and effect mentioned in your comment. Poor quality steel -> heavy -> 2 handed.

I don't ever recall seeing a 2 handed bronze sword, and if the steel is worse than bronze, why didn't they go back to that? Which kind of suggests that it isn't.

I'm assuming low quality steel is overly soft rather than overly brittle. If it were overly soft wouldn't that favour shorter blades? You'd either get flex, or as you mentioned, added weight, which seems a bad trade off compared to a shorter sword and shield?

I got the impression 2 handed swords/no shield was an honour thing, rather than a tactically advantageous thing, I'm in no way an expert on such things though.

>I got the impression 2 handed swords/no shield was an honour thing, rather than a tactically advantageous thing, I'm in no way an expert on such things though.

I am not an expert either but as I understand it, Samurai were nobles and fought on horseback with their primary weapons being spears and bows, and they considered swords a backup weapon.[0]

The mythologizing of the Samurai, their honor-above-reason mentality ("bushido") and the katana as their primary weapon was a retrofiction created in the Edo period, when the Samurai had been disarmed and relegated to bureaucrats, and they wanted to justify and romanticize their violent past, and the term bushido was invented in the 20th century, and was itself based on Western ideals of chivalry in knighthood (which also, really, didn't exist.)[1,2]




"The mythologizing of the Samurai, their honor-above-reason mentality"

Agreed, I was focussing more on the not tactically advantageous, rather than ascribing an honour code per se.

It is generally a good idea to agree weapons beforehand, it helps keep the battlefield survivable. The 20th century wasn't known for it's 'honour' but WW2 combatants did refrain from using chemical weapons for example, and nukes were never used in the cold war and it's proxy battles. I'd label that as part of an honour code? I'm not making the case too forcefully though.

More like fear of reprisal than honor. Chemical and nuclear weapons are very hard to defend your civilian population from. Mutual Assured Destruction has worked so far but I wouldn’t call it an honor code.

Germany fought to the end in WW2, the eastern front was particularly brutal. I suspect there were already fears of reprisals.

I wasn't thinking MAD specifically, although I'm aware of at least one example where Russian early warning picked up an incoming object that appeared to them to be a missile, and they didn't respond, which seems very un MAD. I was thinking of the proxy wars, Vietnam, Korea, etc. I'm not even sure the threat of nuclear attack was used. I suppose you could say that's part of MAD (not attacking allies), if that were the case, wouldn't the same reasoning extend to not fighting them in the first place, in the same way there were never any conventional wars between Russia and the US?

So agreed it is mainly about self preservation, but I would say it goes a little further than that.

You're correct. Swords are almost always a sidearm and not a primary weapon. A notable exception is the sword and shield; for example the Roman legionary's gladius and scutum (and even then the pilum was thrown first). On the battlefield the samurai would use a bow or yari before his sword.

Primary weapons were generally either bows or some kind of long stick with something sharp on the end. Primary weapons and shields are both inconvenient and tacky to carry when not expecting battle, so the sidearm becomes the badge of office or nobility for the warrior class.

I'm not so sure about that either. Katanas used to be much longer if you go back several hundred years before the Edo period. I believe that the 2-handed method has more to do with providing greater power and control than the weight of the sword (one hand guiding, the other providing force). Also, there was a fair amount of schooling in drawing the sword and cutting your opponent in a single motion, which of course, is only practical with one hand.

Samurai also carried the smaller wakizashi which was used in one hand. Further, some of the lesser known swordsmen used a two-sword technique, holding a katana in either hand.

But my memory may be fuzzy; it's been a good 15+ years since I was really into all this stuff :-)

Your memory must be fuzzy. You just referred to Miyamoto Musashi as "lesser known" :-)


"Musashi, as he was often simply known, became renowned through stories of his unique double-bladed swordsmanship and undefeated record in his 61 duels (next is 33 by Itō Ittōsai)."

> I'm assuming low quality steel is overly soft rather than overly brittle.

I think there are a lot of ways to not get it right with steel. In a sword hardness and toughness are in conflict. You really want a sword with a hard edge and a tough back. Which implies differing amounts of carbon and temper. Not only that but the grain is very important as well.

A common European way of sword making was to carburize iron rods/wire and then forge weld those into a sword. The outer layer is hard steel which is strong. The inner core is milder tougher. Japanese achieved the same by folding and forge welding. I think there are were a lot of ways to do this but labor intensive, highly skilled work where if you goofed or the starting material was off the result was crummy.

> I got the impression 2 handed swords/no shield was an honour thing,

Not an expert either but I think 2 handed were symbolic/ceremonial/rank artifacts.

> I don't ever recall seeing a 2 handed bronze sword, and if the steel is worse than bronze, why didn't they go back to that?

Bronze fell out of use not because iron/steel was better but because tin was rare and hard to come by. So, I'm not sure of the exact answer to your question but I suspect it's some version of "because they couldn't".

Wouldn't bronze therefore become even more a sign of wealth and status? And make it all the more likely that those that could afford would shell out for bronze blades?

Gold is rare and expensive, but you see the same thing, with people displaying it all the more.

So unless their supply of tin was literally completely cut off, which I don't know for sure, but would be very surprised if it were.

To be fair, much of Episode 4 was inspired by Hidden Fortress.

George Lucas was heavily inspired by "7 Samurai" by Akira Kurosawa. Its a must watch if you like samurai movies.

Interesting I always thought it was artistically derived from the german ww1-ww2 helmets.

The Stormtroopers are based on WWII German army uniforms and equipment, even down to the gas mask cylinder that German soldiers carried behind them. Even the name Stormtroopers comes from German WWII unit type name.

> Even the name Stormtroopers comes from German WWII unit type name.

Stormtroopers were from the First World War.

> Stormtroopers were specialist soldiers of the German Army in World War I.


sturmtruppen were 'invented' in WW1 to capture trenches, though yeah the term lived on to the next WW

It's a blend of both. The breathing mask was lifted off ww2 equipment IIRC.

that is the most awesome thing (hevqcz) i have ever seen

George Lucas was influenced by Akira Kurosawa. Most closely by Hidden Fortress (although he puts it lowest on his list), but by other Kurosawa movies too. He talks about it some of his interviews.


Is the fantastic impracticality of these helmets due to the handicap principal ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handicap_principle )?

Some of these are almost certainly just ceremonial pieces, but the ones that aren't would have served a distinctive signpost for troops under a samurai's command, the same way that flags strapped to armor and horses were common in premodern warfare through the world. Fighting without radios or even so much as binoculars is extremely confusing, and if you're leading a bunch of peasant militia who get a bare minimum of training, you want it extremely obvious who's giving the orders and where to try and group up if people get separated in battle.

Yes. Important and high-level people often wore large and conspicuous helmets to show that they were still on the field. Others could look to see that the lord was still not overrun or had not taken flight, or perhaps he had taken a different position. Also it could be useful to signal his authority if he had to directly rally troops from horseback.

Yep! I went to the "Art of Armor" exhibition when it came to Phoenix Art Museum - saw this stuff up close and bought the catalog, which confirms that many of the fancier pieces were ceremonial in nature -- especially the ones with big vertical decorations

Side note : one of the most amazing parts of the exhibition was the archery equipment -- fantastic and frightening-looking arrow broadheads especially

...and the face masks?

These would be useful for both terrorizing your enemies and also ensuring that you don't take a blow to the face.

Also, easily exploitable high-quality iron was much rarer in Japan than in Europe, so reinforced masks gave some face protection while being incredibly cheaper than steel faceplates on helmets.

Nope, it's due to the fact these come from the period after the samurai had changed from soldiers to aristocratic bureaucrats. It's doubtful any of these saw a single battle.

They may have seen battle but if so as commanders from the rear where visibility to the troops was paramount. If they had seen actual close combat those elaborate decorations probably would not have survived. Also, there were many plainer helmets at the exhibition. I think a samurai expecting real combat would have chosen one of those.

I'm under the impression that samurai only wore armor in real battles and never for ceremony (preferring other, equally elaborate garments for that). This is in contrast with medieval Europe where there are many examples of elaborate, ceremonial-only armor (such as full suits for children of royalty, etc). Can anyone confirm?

These weren't worn. They were primarily gifts and a means to maintain skilled artisans.

Number 3 would do great in battle, they could see him coming from over the horizon.

It's likely an artifact of the samurai fighting style which is quite different from conventional continental fighting as experienced by regular troops.

Can you briefly describe the style of fighting that makes this sort of headgear practical?

For one thing, despite their cool swords, I understand that the Samurai preferred to kill people with arrows when possible. They were all accoplished archers, including firing from horseback, which, as we all know from the Mongols, is a very effective way of defeating non-mounted foes.

If anyone lives in London and would like to investigate how the ancient sword arts of japan tie into meditation, I highly recommend http://battodo-fudokan.co.uk/

I did tameshigiri for the second time last night. Speaking as someone who regularly practiced zazen for 15 years it is an incredibly Zen meditative experience!

Just because you could match your meditation experience to your martial arts experience does not imply that there is something unique to martial arts going on. As I mentioned, almost any simple physical activity may become a meditative practice and may benefit from such practice. I like the following quote about zanshin (from https://wwzc.org/dharma-text/zanshin)

"In taking a step, it is the weight rolling smoothly and the next step arising. In breathing in completely, it is this breath. In breathing out completely, it is this breath. In life, it is this life. Zanshin means complete follow through, leaving no trace. It means each thing, completely, as it is."

So can be almost any phisical activity that requires simplicity and precision.

so what?

From the websight "Nakamura Ryu Battodo is a distillation of traditional Japanese swordsmanship ..."

In other words, it is not a traditional sword system but a modern one.

Given it's less than savory origins I wouldn't consider it a basis for meditative contemplation either.

For those wondering, this may be referring to it being the replacement for allegedly using live prisoners for sword practice.

In my experience, Aikido includes many practical bits of Japanese swordsmanship. Practitioners (especially Iwama style) typically use wooden knives, swords and staffs in practice. Because that helps with proper form. Given that most Aikido moves are based on weapon moves.

Advanced Judo is also like that. I've never practiced advanced Judo, but I've seen it played. And I saw them using wooden weapons.

Given that both Judo and Aikido were born from Jiu Jitsu, that makes sense.

Heh - I practiced Kendo with Raoul Knutsen for a few years, there wasn't much meditative about the school he followed!

I have a lot of respect for martial arts disciplines that put martial arts first and keep spiritual aspects of the practice ( if they have one ) off the marketing material.

This is interesting. I've been doing Krav Maga for some time and a few years ago did a week of it in Isreal, sampling all its aspects and applications - military, close protection, civilian, police /crowd control and... it's spiritual side. For a martial art so young I was surprised it even has a spiritual side. It's also become the aspect I find most fascinating. And yet the instructors accompanying us seemed embarrassed by it and the single instructor world wide teaching it from a kibbutz outside Haifa.

It certainly wasn't why I chose to practice Krav Maga.

Can you tell more about the spiritual side of Krav Maga?

The seeming lack of it, might be why I never took a closer lock into it. So I am also surprised that there might be one. Can it be that just some instructors personal spirituality got mixed into it?

There's an interesting helmet with a large statue of Fudo Myo-o, the "immovable radiant king" of Shingon Buddhism.

I don't recall seeing another helmet with a full statue. Are there more examples?

There's this one at Les Invalides in Paris (site not mine):


Cmd/ctrl+f, "dragon". It's not quite half way down. Picture's not great. IIRC it was right inside the entrance we came in, though I don't know how much help that is as there are probably a few, even if you narrow it down to entrances open to the public.

There's a closer, somewhat sharper shot of just the top on this page:


Searching on page for "dragon" brings one straight to it, again.

It's a European helmet, not a Japanese one, though.

That was the first and only one I had seen, too. I suppose there may be a few more but they certainly seem to be rare. This exhibition had no other examples. The helmet with a flame-engulfed dragon that was shown mounted on an armor suit comes closest.

Armor 1 and Armor 3 both feature heavy use of a light bluish thread for decoration. In China a similar blue, made from kingfisher feathers, would be an imperial symbol -- do you know if there's any relationship / what the significance in Japan was?

I’m not aware of any such relationship in Japan. The exhibition didn’t mention it, and I haven’t heard of it elsewhere either. I think it’s just decorative here.

Does the Royal Armouries in Leeds still have that amazing collection of Japanese armour?

That would be my bank holiday recommendation.

What is the mass of the helmet?

I tried one on once at a hole-in-the-wall samurai museum in Tokyo. It was pretty hefty but very well-supported - my head didn't feel wobbly or strained.

"hole-in-the-wall.... museum"

My interest is piqued.

I'm inferring that they're just very small museums? Do they have any essential characteristics?

Google isn't being very helpful.


It's one man's work of passion. When I went, it was quiet enough that an attendant guided us around the entire first floor personally. It's not exactly tiny, but it's just two narrow floors behind an unassuming frontage, and so a big change from the other (public) museums in Tokyo.

If you click through it is listed for each image. Helmet 1 is 5kg, the others seem less, down to about 2.5 for the smallest I saw.

are these helmets practical or mostly for decoration purposes?


I'm bored and we are on a site called hacker news; anyone want to join me on de-obfuscating this code?

It's a self-hosting compiler written in Scheme:


Here's the best I could do at formatting and reading/commenting it, so far:

    ;; Usage: (get)
    ;; Parse the entirety of stdin as a sequence of s-expressions.  Return
    ;; that list of expressions.
    ;; The definition of this function is a little contrived, because in
    ;; lisp it's simpler to prepend to a list than to append to it, which
    ;; would be the natural thing to do.  So instead, we build the list
    ;; such that it is backwards, then we call (reverse LIST) on it when
    ;; we read EOF.
    (define (get)
      (get1 (quote ()) (read)))
    (define (get1 b r)
      (if (eof-object? r)
          (reverse b)
        (get1 (cons r b) (read))))
    ;; Usage: (put)
    ;; Read the entirety of stdin as a sequence of characters, perform the
    ;; global string substitution ")" -> ")..", then return the result as
    ;; a string.
    ;; The definition of this function is a little contrived, because in
    ;; lisp it's simpler to prepend to a list than to append to it, which
    ;; would be the natural thing to do.  So instead, we build the list
    ;; such that it is backwards, then we call (reverse LIST) on it when
    ;; we read EOF.
    (define (put)
      (put1 (quote ()) (read-char)))
    (define (put1 b r)
      (if (eof-object? r)
          (list->string (reverse b))
        (if (char=? #\) r)
            (put1 (cons #\. (cons #\. (cons r b))) (read-char))
          (put1 (cons r b) (read-char)))))
    ;; Usage: (final LIST)
    ;; ???
    (define (final lis)
      (if (null? lis)
        (final1 (car lis) (cdr lis))))
    ;; Usage: (final1 FIRST REST)
    (define (final1 f r)
      (if (and (pair? f) (pair? (cdr f)) (eqv? (quote quote) (car f)))
          (cons f (final (cdr r)))
        (if (list? f)
            (final2 f (gather (count (car r)) (cons (quote ()) (final (cdr r)))))
          (if (or (vector? f) (pair? f) (eq? #\) f))
              (cons f (final (cdr r)))
            (cons f (final r))))))
    ;; Usage: (final2 f g)
    (define (final2 f g)
      (cons (append (final f) (car g)) (cdr g)))
    ;; Usage: (count SYMBOL)
    (define (count s)
      (- (string-length (symbol->string s)) 2))
    ;; Usage: (gather c lis) 
    (define (gather c lis)
      (if (= c 0)
          (cons (reverse (car lis)) (cdr lis))
        (gather (- c 1) (cons (cons (cadr lis) (car lis)) (cddr lis)))))
    ;; 1. Use (put) to read stdin as a string and perform the ")" -> ").."
    ;;    global string replacement.
    ;; 2. Feed that resulting string to (get), which parses it in to a
    ;;    sequence of s-expressions.
    ;; 3. Feed that list of expressions to (final), which does something
    ;;    to it and returns a list.
    ;; 4. (write) each item that (final) returns.
    (for-each write (final (with-input-from-string (put) get)))

It looks like you cracked open the lobster. I tried compiling this:

(+ 6 (*).... 2 3 2 3)

Nice try bot, whatever it is you were trying to do

It's more likely to be a human testing something than a bot. TBF, this comment and the replies were more interesting than any of the on topic comments or the article itself.

You have to at least give credit that the bot was apparently written in lisp.

Scheme, actually, since it uses "define" instead of "defun." I formatted it reasonably, but it still looked like a pain to untangle.

The original Lisp also used DEFINE. See the LISP 1 Programmer's Manual, Mac Carthy et al. 1960, P. 23.

Scheme is a lisp.

Seems legit.

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