swords, spears and longbows, the feudal armies of ancient Japan fought
many a battle as the country endured centuries of civil unrest. Facing
attacks from mounted archers and hand to hand combat, the thing that
stood between life and death for a soldier was his armour. Distinctively
Japanese in style, yoroi armour was widely used between the 9th
and 14th century, and today, it can been seen on riders participating
in the Soma Noma Oi, a festival which celebrates the civil wars of the
past. Ensuring the festival participants dress as authentically as possible
is Satoshi Tachibana, one of only five people remaining in Japan with
the skills and knowledge to create and restore the yoroi of the
Made from hundreds of lacquered metal plates and leather panels woven
together with brightly coloured cords, and decorated with gold and silver
ornaments, the yoroi was in many cases an elaborate work of art.
Despite this, the armour was practical as well, and the weaving of independent
plates together allowed the soldier manoeuverability in addition to
effective protection. One drawback, however, was that donning hisbattle
armour could take a soldier up to an hour, with a yoroi weighing
on average 10-12 kilogrammes.
With thirty eight years of experience behind him, Satoshi Tachibana
of Soma City represents the third generation of yoroi makers
in a family which has kept the art alive for over one hundred years.
Downplaying his rare skills, Mr Tachibana recalls watching and helping
his father work as a child, and although at first not keen to take up
the profession, he decided in the end to keep the family tradition alive.
With the Soma Noma Oi a major event in the region, yoroi owners
are in abundance, and resultingly, restoration comprises much of his
work. However, Mr Tachibana also receives orders for new armour, which
he makes singlehandedly fromscratch. Due to this time consuming process
and the high demand for repair work on existing yoroi, the wait
for a new suit of armour is several years.
In describing the characteristics of the yoroi, Mr Tachibana
singles out the kabuto, or Japanese style helmet, for special
mention. Early kabuto came in many shapes and sizes; some with
elaborate fixtures and others created in the likeness of animals' heads
in order to intimidate the enemy. Kabuto in later centuries were
also used in combination with metal masks which, unlike European helmets,
displayed detailed facial features, even including, in some cases, a
bushy moustache. The purpose of the masks was largely psychological
- they were intended to scare the opponent while at the same time, not
giving away the age and identity of the wearer.
With only a handful of yoroi restorers remaining in the country,
Mr Tachibana has devoted much of his time to ensuring that his knowledge
and skills will live on. He has taken on three students in the past,
and has more recently turned his focus to creating a homepage about
how to make yoroi, in the hope it will heighten interest in the
armour. Mr Tachibana can also be found every year among the riders at
the Soma Noma Oi, helping ensure that this important piece of Soma's
heritage will also stay strong.