Sode – samurai warrior armour
November 15, 2012
24w x 21h cm, lacquered metal and silk braid
Here is a single sode, or shoulder guard, as worn by the samurai warrior class as part of their armour.
Most references to yoroi or samurai armour deal the armour of famous generals. They were of course fashion victims and prided themselves on going into battle with the most costly and elaborate textiles imaginable. Costly and rare Chinese textiles were used to line their armour. They provoked their enemies with the studied disdain with which they regarded their wealth – “I’m here to die if need be, and sacrifice all this elaborate-looking wealth in the process!”
Sode are often shown as large flat plates hanging down over the upper shoulder. My example is more rounded and compact and is thus more appropriate to some lowly foot soldier or other. It’s important to remember though that after the 16th century, guns were introduced into the mix of traditional samurai sword fighting and that a special class of mounted archers came into being. There are experts in mounted archery who flourish even today in Japan and who don traditional armour and compete in archery festivals.
When it comes to sode, some originals (and replica copies) are much more elaborate than the one shown here.
An example of this added complexity is, at the top of each, the cap plate (kamuri-no-ita) which can be an iron plate covered with leather. Leather of course came from animals and thus was not handled by traditional Buddhist Japanese: tanning and preparing leather was left to an underclass of Japanese. We normally associate castes with the Hindus of India, but this underclass persists in contemporary Japan. The leather was often stencilled, as here. Braiders will note the (marudai) braid in blue and white around the leather.
A fine mid-14th century example once held by the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art shows this cap plate in decorated leather. Similarly, in large examples of sode as worn by mounted archers, there can be attached to the guard a decorative metal plate (kogai kanamono) with additional cord to stop it falling forward every time the archer leaned forward. Elaborately-braided sode can feature sun and moon designs, a sun for one shoulder and a moon for the other.
Braiders will recognise the long tasselled braids. Outsized tassels were used on braids worn by horses; on October 22 every year, the textile parade through the streets of Kyoto features these horses. I was completely gobsmacked by the amount of vermillion silk used to create this huger-than-huge braids and tassels.
Mine as presented here is much simpler and much smaller in design. You’ll notice for example that my guard couldn’t possibly protect all of the body area from the shoulder to the elbow as the larger ones do. Here we have just five slats of iron (or same, “scales”), lacquered black. It’s likely an all-metal lamellar suit of armour would have been too heavy, so scales of metal were made from either rawhide or a mix of metal and leather.
The lamellar scales are laced together with silk braid. The flat braid – 8-ridge twill, 8mm wide – done in ancient times with loop manipulation braided with the fingers and in modern times on a takadai braiding stand are threaded through two rows of 21 holes each in every scale in my case. The braid is the same structure throughout, but there are three colours: burgundy, green (turning green-gold over time) and white (turning cream over time). The 8-ridge twill is one of the first a takadai braider will learn.
This lacing of silk braid was known as “odoshi” and Carey has an illustration of how one end of the braid was trimmed to a tapered point so it could be passed through the scale holes with a needle. The style of odoshi lacing shown in my example is known as “kebiki” (hair spread over). Carey’s book shows different odoshi lacing styles; for example, the photo of sode at the Wikipedia website shows shikime me nui (cover eye sewing) sometimes known as chikiri, requiring three sets of holes in each scale.
You will notice the white braid running around the outside of the large flat sode in the illustrations above. This is mimo-ito and is discussed in Carey’s book on samurai armour braids. The one illustrated uses whie, green and blue and is one of the simplest takadai braids: see #7 (yonken-gumi, from “yon”/four, 4-ridge twill – 31 bobbins, 16 and 17 on each of the two arms) in Makiko Tada’s first book of takadai braids. In Japanese museum examples of samurai armour, these mimi-ito can be multi-coloured 8-ridge twill braids or feature kikkoh or more elaborate surface designs – the sort of kikkoh patterns seen in Rodrick Owen’s book on braiding is common. What astounds any braider is the sheer amount of braiding involved in samurai armour; the amount of time and effort required to braid these endless metres of braid is nothing less than staggering.
Historically of course, braiding stands (we think) came into a being long after these braids were perfected, made in the hand rather than on a stand. Certainly it was important that a samurai warrior repair his own braids in the field. Carey, in her book, spotted a braiding error and shows it among her many photos.
The mimi-ito braids used to hold my metal slats together are in plain colours, but many famous historical suits of armour have multicoloured mimi-ito round the outside. Even more elaborate examples have a sophisticated kikkoh design also used as mimi-ito. Braiders interested in these kikkoh and complex mimi-ito should check out illustrations of samurai armour, ideally showing the armour plates in close-up.
To protect the samurai from the hard edges of the scales of iron, a covering of printed fabric is sewn on the inside with a bias-binding trim in the same green as the braid. In this case, the pattern shows white dragonflies on a blue background, a popular motif among samurai since the dragonfly only ever flies forward and never retreats.
To attach the sode to the rest of the suite of armour, there are two loops of braid at the top, each looped through a diamond-shaped piece of brass. This small braid is square in cross-section, again in the same colours as the larger braid. As simple as it looks, I’ve yet to work out the braiding sequence for the small square braid!
For anyone interested in the relationship between braids and samurari armour, I cannot recommend highly enough combing eBay regularly for examples: from dented and chipped examples like mine to far more elegant repros. If possible, check out armour at your closest institutional museum. In very large cities it’s possible to track down militaria shops; some might have on show modern Chinese copies of Japanese armour. Where I live, $US2000 will buy a set of armour, complete with bright rayon-looking braid. In Japan, historical examples of samurai armour pop up in major museum exhibitions; the Osaka City Museum (a towering white skyscraper near Osaka Castle) has a little room set aside for its permanent collection of sword blades and sword braids and I managed in 2007 to see there a temporary exhibition of samurai history. The Japanese viewers were more interested in the historical documents and reams of calligraphy and battle maps than I was; I was transfixed by the wonders of velvet capes and the almost-miniature examples of armour (the Japanese then being a lot smaller than they are today), jumping from one suit to the next checking out the braids. With the relatively small size of the armour and despite having my nose up against the glass, the detail of the braid is not always apparent. At more than one famous temple in Kyoto and Nara, I unexpectedly came across examples of samurai warrior armour and braids in the temple Treasury Buildings.
www.yoroi.com – for good, online detailed photographs.
Carey, Jacqui. Samurai Undressed. Self-published, 1995. (ISBN 0-9523225-1)
Kure, Mitsuo. Samurai: an Illustrated History. Boston: Tuttle. Far and away the best book for its illustrations, based largely on copies of armour as worn by warrior recreationists at historical re-enactment events in the 1990s. This is not a book limited to the costume of generals: it features armour worn by ordinary soldiers and (spectacularly!) by mounted archers.
Nobukio Maruyama. Clothes of Samurai Warriors. Kyoto: Kyoto Shoin Art Library of Japanese textiles, vol.3. A small handbook, at least half the book is devoted to textiles worn off the field of battle. For example, it includes the kamishimo (today worn by the orchestral musicians at kabuki opera performances) as seen so often in “portraits” of famous Japanese men.
Ogawa, Morihiro. A Famous 14th-century Japanese Armor. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum Journal 24, 1989. It’s interesting to note that the outline drawings of this set of armour omits the mimi-ito, which is a two-colour kikkoh pattern.
Tada, Makiko. Comprehensive Treatise of Braids III: Taka-dai braids I. Braid #3 is a 6-ridge twill (25 bobbins) and braid #4 is a 10-ridge twill (47 bobbins).