Object: Samurai Face Mask

E/1949/2/2
Samurai Face Mask
Japan
1650-1700
Black steel, Corded thread, Red Lacquer

This face mask of black steel, with grotesque features and chin protectors, would have been attached to the helmet of a Samurai by the blue cord connected to the face mask. The Samurai were the warrior scholars of Feudal Japan, who, for 700 years, were part of the armies that roamed across the land at their commanders’ lead. When not in battle they led quiet, simple lives of training and reflection, knowing one day they may die in battle. Their possible shorter life did not stop them from facing every day with courage.

They began their rise to power in the 12th century, as the strong central government of Japan, ruled by the emperor, became corrupted and weakened. In the year 1185, a military leader named, Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-99), forced the emperor to give him the title of Shogun (similar to a King) , which means barbarian conquering supreme general. The Shogun would become leader of the country, while the emperor was relegated to a strictly ceremonial position. The Shogun then selected advisors to serve as daimyo (like a Lord of governor), who ruled over large tracts of land. As can be expected, ruling over large amounts of land was difficult and protecting the land from bandits, even more so. To deal with the protection, the daimyo hired independent warriors who would become the samurai, which when translated means one who serves.

The samurai conducted themselves in a dignified manner in public; not drinking uncontrollably and treating women with respect. This was all a part of their bushido code (a code of ethics) that not only stressed respect to oneself and others, but also stressed education, physical and mental strength, as well as the various arts. Through this dignified public manner, samurai became respected by the public and continued to see their status rise as a warrior class. Only samurai were allowed to carry weapons in public and to disrespect them could mean death.

The weapons of a samurai were not only tools for combat, but were also seen as an extension of his very soul. The samurai treated these weapons with high regard and would not draw his weapons outside of war, for to do so meant someone would die. Many samurai believed that a weapon once unsheathed could not be re-sheathed until it had seen combat. As such, it was extremely disrespectful to draw a weapon for no purpose. The samurai sword was his most important weapon, which, according to tradition and belief, contained the samurai’s spirit. The armor the samurai wore was designed to turn aside the impact of arrows, which were the samurai’s biggest threat on the battlefield. Dying by the sword of another samurai was considered a noble death, but death by an arrow, which could come from any direction, did not have this distinction.

The facemask of the samurai called a mengu often had grotesque features including teeth and mustaches, in an attempt to intimidate the enemy. The inside, much like the mask in the collection, is lacquered red to reflect the warriors face and aid in the intimidation factor. While the facemask also had the purpose of offering physical protection to the face, its most important feature was the fact it provided a convenient place to tie off and hook the helmet cords, keeping it in place.

Take a look at this video to learn more about Samurai armor:

Sources:

Hanel, Rachael

2008  Samurai: Fearsome Fighters. Mankato, Minnesota: Creative Education.

Sinclaire, Clive

2004  Samurai: The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior. Guilford, Connecticut: Salamander Books.

[Dakota Stevens]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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