The dō, or cuirass, is the largest and most visible part of any given armour. As such, it really sets the feel for the suit. In fact, it is the design of the dō that gives an armour its name, be it a yokohagi ni-mai dō gusoku (“horizontally-rivetted clamshell cuirass armour”) or a go-mai dangaie haramaki dō gusoku (“armour with a five-sectional cuirass with two stepped, different lacing styles, opening up the back”).
You will have to decide what kind of armour you want to build. There are actually two different things you will have to decide; style, and type. For style, such things as rivetted, laced, scale, etc., are the concerns. You can imagine that the permutations are nearly endless. For type, we refer to the actual “architecture” of the armour.
For type, such factors as clamshell, back-opening, five-section, breastplate only, etc., are the factors that matter. See the chart to note the various types. The small circles indicate the location of hinges. Some of these shapes are exceedingly rare, but the diagram is compiled from two different manuals of armour written by Japanese armour historians, so I must only assume that they know of things I’ve not yet seen. (One example is the three-plate haramaki, which we thought we’d created over a decade ago in Trimaris. I call it a “sakura dō” after Sakura Tetsuo, KSCA, O.Pel. (Dr. Steve Bloom), founding Baron An Crosaire, who came up with the concept. (Imagine my surprise years later in Tōkyō when I found the shape listed in an armour manual!)
There are some things that you might wish to consider. If your weight fluctuates, you might prefer a haramaki variant, a haraate, a roku-mai dō, or a ryō-awase dō. None of these is affected by an unchanging waistline, so nothing will get shifted out of kilter if there is any variation there. If you gain or lose weight in a “conventional” armour—one with a closed left side and opening up the right—the right side will either gap or develop a deep overlap, causing the watagami to be out of kilter and ruin the fit. An armour that opens up the back or at both sides will gap or close evenly, allowing the watagami to shift evenly and keep the fit proper.
If you have a long, slender torso, you have the perfect body shape for the Yukinoshita dō, which is a variation of a go-mai dō.
I personally prefer haramaki-type dō, and for perhaps nostalgic reasons (and that they’re really simple to make!) I like the sakura dō style.
Armours of scale construction that have no hinges and open under the right arm are called dō maru. They seem to have their origins in the eleventh century. Their comfort and ease of wear and use made them eventually replace the ō-yoroi for serious combat.
Haramaki dō are essentially the same as dō maru, but they open up the back rather than the side. They were originally retainer armours, as were dō maru. Later, this term came to be applied to any armour style opening up the back.
This armour is the Japanese equivalent of the famed coat-of-plates. The typical term is kawazutsumi dō, as they’re usually wrapped in leather, although samples enclosed by fabric (notably layers of heavy silk) are also extant.
They were of kozane construction, but for SCA combat they could just as easily be made of solid lames. The lames (of scale or solid construction) are overlaid with leather or fabric, and rows of cross-lacing serve to secure the leather to the plates.
Tatami means “folding.” These are the armours often seen being worn by faceless hordes of low-ranking retainers in samurai films. The plates are business-card sized rectangles, hexagons, or combinations of shapes. The plates are interconnected by mail and stitched down to a fabric backing. The cheapest of the cheap suits have the plates stitched directly to the fabric, with no interconnecting mail. The kusazuri can either be conventional plate and lace, or built as continuations of the folding method used in the dō.
Tōsei gusoku (lit. “modern armours”) is the term given for armours of the latter half of the sixteenth century, so the cuirasses are therefore tōsei dō. They are marked by a more tailored silhouette, a tapered waist, and an overall more delicate appearance. Older armours would have a two-lame front and rear tateage (occasionally three in the back), and four lames in the kebiki dō (or torso) section. Tōsei gusoku almost invariably had three lames in the front tateage, four in the back, and five in the kebiki dō.The only way to do this, of course, is to cut down the width of the lames.
There were armours made in the tōsei gusoku style and patterns that used the older lame count, however. These were usually less expensive or retainer armours. If not of lamellar construction, the proportions of a conventional lamellar dō are still retained. The quintessential tōsei dō is the okegawa dō (see below).
The tōsei gusoku was the foundation of the largest variety of armour styles in Japanese history. Of necessity, only a few are addressed here.
Maru dō is essentially the term given for tōsei gusoku made like a dō maru (or, if you prefer, a dō maru made in the tōsei gusoku mold). This is also sometimes called a kebiki dō, as it is laced with kebiki odoshi, but some armourers reserve this term for tōsei gusoku made of kiritsuke zane and incorporating one or more hinges. The maru dō proper is made of hon kozane with no hinges, like the dō maru.
The okegawa dō is an armour of rivetted lames. Okegawa means “tub-sided” and refers to the obviously tub-like shape of the cuirass and its construction.
There are two variants: yokohagi (horizontal) and tatehagi (vertical) dō. The most common variety is the yokohagi okegawa ni-mai dō, in which the plates are rivetted in horizontal rows, and there is a single hinge under the left arm. Although armourers and collectors may use the term “clamshell” to describe all single-hinge armours, the okegawa dō is the one most commonly thought of when that term is used. The lames can be straight, cut to represent scales, wavy, etc. The rivets are usually ground flush with the surface, although raised low dome rivets are also common.
This is one of the most often seen forms of retainer armour, and was made in great numbers in both the modern pattern using narrower lames, and the older pattern with its larger lames. Armours so made of mass production are also often called okashi (munition-grade) dō.
Nuinobe dō are cuirasses of iyo zane construction (or made to look like iyo zane). The term means rougly “sewn-spread,” and refers to the horizontal lacing of the shita garami to produce the rows of iyo zane. This is a truly elegant form of armour. It can be made in any of several types, but most seem to have been clamshells.
Cuirasses that are smooth and show no sign of lames are called hotoke dō. These are the Japanese version of the globose breastplates. The term Hotoke means “Buddha” and is a reference to the smooth, round bellies of Buddhist statuary.
They are usually met with in clamshell form, but go-mai dō (five-plate cuirasses) are also common. The five-plate variations are often confused with yukinoshita or sendai dō, but the lack of a separate munaita usually (but not always) marks the hotoke dō. Another giveaway is that yukinoshita dō invariably have a large number of sets of kusazuri, nine or eleven, while the kusazuri on hotoke dō follow conventional numbers and patterns.
The only dō named after an armourer we can identify is the yukinoshita dō. Specifically, it is named for Yukinoshita Denshichirō Hisaie, who created the design in Sagami sometime after 1573. This armour exists only as a five-plate cuirass. It is also called a sendai dō, after the city in the north that was the capital of the great daimyō Date Masamune, who equipped his entire army with them. Yukinoshita dō are very simple armours, elegant in their lack of pretension.
In addition to their enlongated, smooth surfaces, they are identified by the large number of sets of kusazuri, and the use of kohire (winglets) jutting out from the shoulder boards over the points of the shoulder, protecting them. Yukinoshita dō did not generally need sode, and were often not supplied with them.
Niō dō, named after a class of Buddhist deity, are hotoke dō embossed to resemble the emaciated torso of a starving monk or old man. (They are also styled gakihara dō, after the starving ghosts of a Buddhist hell.)
Mōgami dō are five-plate armours of solid lames laced with sugake odoshi instead of being riveted. Some consider kebiki-laced variants also to be mōgami dō; others do not. Some also consider any dō of lamellar (ita mono) construction with sugake lacing to be mōgami dō, regardless of whether it is a five-plater or a clamshell. Haramaki dō of five plate, laced, lamellar construction are called mōgami haramaki dō.
Hatomune dō (lit. “pigeon-breast cuirass”) were inspired by European peascod breastplate armour. Many hatomune dō were made from imported Portuguese armours, while others were made domestically to identical patterns. Still other hatomune dō were created by running a ventral crease in an okegawa or hotoke dō. They can be either smooth (single plate) construction, or lamellar.
Dangae dō (lit. “step-changing”) is the style that is not a style. Rather, such armours are combinations of two or more other styles. For example, the main body of an armour may be an okegawa dō, but the bottom two lames are laced (kebiki or sugake) instead of riveted; or an armour is laced in sugake but the tateage and bottom lames are in kebiki. Such combinations of styles were quite common.
The term “hishinui dō” refers actually to a construction technique which is applied to other styles (almost exclusively yokohagi okegawa dō). This technique is so singularly obvious that the construction has overridden any other stylistic references. Instead of rivets or lacing, hishinui (crosslaces) are used to either hold lames together (in the case of what would otherwise be considered a yokohagi okegawa dō or nuinobe dō) or even just to decorate a smooth surface (in the case of a hotoke dō).
Munemenui dō are variations on hishinui dō. (They are also called unamenui dō.) In place of cross-laces, a “running stitch” goes horizontally along lames or the surface of the dō. This “stitch” of lacing runs along the surface of the lame looking like nothing so much as a dotted line paralleling the top. They were actually rather rare.
The Weird Stuff
There are also many just plain weird styles which are better left to lists of historical oddities, such as the kikkō dō, which is an entire dō made of the small hexagonal Japanese brigandine. Pretend you never heard of these.
Parts of the Dō
The dō is easily divided into two parts: the cuirass proper, and the kusazuri (tassets), with a third catch-all category for the various fittings and finishing details on the cuirass.
Unless specified, the information given herein holds for both the front and the back plates (or the sides and front and back if a multi-hinged armour). When I write about dō constructed of a single plate, it is to be understood that I am referring to a single breast plate, and a single back plate. If I mean to refer to a haraate or maekake dō (essentially synonyms), I will use these specific terms.
The main part of the cuirass corresponds to the various styles described above.
In armours made of lames, the wider lames that run along the abdomen form what is called “kabuki dō” or “nagagawa.” The standing panels, front and back, are called tateage. The rear tateage is broader, typically by a factor of around 4:5 or 5:6 (e.g., if the front tateage are 10" wide, the back is about 12"-13". The rear tateage also has one lame more than the front.
Cheaper lamellar armours are made with larger lames, two front tateage (three in back), and four lames in the kabuki dō. More expensive armours are made of narrower lames, three in the front tateage (four in back), and five lames in the kabuki dō.Regardless of cost, many okegawa dō were made to the so-called old pattern through the Edo period.
As you may recall from Chapter One, kanagu mawari refers to the various plates that are attached to the body of a suit of armour; the term indicating their origin as the “solid plates” in armours in which the rest of the construction was small scales. On a dō, the kanagu mawari consists of the munaita (breast board), the oshitsuke-no-ita (shoulder board), the wakiita (armpit guards), and the watagami (shoulder straps).
Most dō are made of a number of lames or plates with attached kanagu mawari. (Even the one-plate hotoke dō may be made with separate body plates and kanagu mawari, although it may also be constructed of a single, solid plate that incorporates the shapes of the kanagu mawari.)
The various plates of the kanagu mawari are made en suite, all of the same style. Typically, the style is reflected in the helmet visor; if the latter is surfaced with printed leather, so are the kanagu mawari. If it is solidly lacquered, so are the kanagu mawari. This is not as solid a rule as the matching of the dangly bits, however; more variation can be noted in this area (although unless you have a solid grasp of the aesthetics of Japanese armour, when you’re making your armour, matching is a good idea).
The simplest and most common type of kanagu mawari is that which just matches the body of the dō: if the dō is smooth and black, so are the kanagu mawari; if the dō is red, so are the kanagu mawari. Occasionally, one will meet with a dō in which the kanagu mawari don’t match (e.g., a gold-lacquered dō with black kanagu mawari.).
The plates of the dō in most common armours are rivetted to the kanagu mawari. Whether this is done by hidden (ground flat) rivets or by more ornamental hassō byō is a matter of the expense and showiness of the armour. In some examples, the plates are suspended from the kanagu mawari by lacing (kebiki or sugake, consistent with the style of the armour).
The cheapest armours have totally undecorated and flat kanagu mawari. More commonly, the kanagu mawari are flared out slightly on their top or extreme edges to help prevent any pinching, and to provide a slightly more dashing appearance.
Kanagu mawari—or at least the munaita and oshitsuke-no-ita—may be decorated by painted or applied heraldic crests. Even in cases where no fukurin is applied, the edges may be turned and painted gold. Due to the nature of lacquer, real Japanese kanagu mawari never have rolled edges typical to European armour, unless it is on an imported European peascod breastplate.
The watagami may be rigidly attached to the oshitsuke-no-ita, or they may be hinged. (Watagami on yukinoshita dō were typically hinged. Those on okashi dō were almost invariably solidly attached.)
Ties and Fastenings
The dō is tied closed under the right arm (or both arms in the case of a ryō-awase dō) by the takahimo. There is a loop on the backside and a pair of cords on the front-side; one cord passes through the loop and is pulled back, and the two cords tied into a bow knot.
In the case of a maekake dō (a.k.a. the haraate), the extra-long shoulder straps fasten under the opposing arm (crossing at the back), and a long tie and loop combination at the bottom cinches the waist in.
A pair of kohaze (frogs) emerge from the top of the munaita, to which the matching ends from the watagami fasten. Pairs of frogs also stick out over the sides of the watagami to attach the kote or sode.
In laced dō, as opposed to rivetted or solid-plate models, the upper panels are held to the watagami by either very small pairs of frogs or by cords. Solidly constructed suits (that is, with rivetted or solid-plate tateage) don’t need this extra support.
A common feature on the more expensive armours is the gyōyō, a small leaf-shaped plate that hangs off the end of each watagami. The purpose of the gyōyō is to protect the cords that fasten the watagami to the munaita. The gyōyō is decorated in the style of the rest of the kanagu mawari, and it often has small applied crests as well. In the understated yukinoshita dō, this takes the form of an extended flap hinged off the end of the watagami.
Armours made after about 1620, or refitted or renovated after that date, frequently have a pair of gilt rings on the front of the dō; these are an Edo-era affectation, and although they are commonly seen in surviving armours, they have no place in true Sengoku armours.
Many retainer-grade armours are fitted with a small, cup-like receptacle at the small of the back and a bracket at shoulder blade-level to hold the pole for a sashimono, a heraldic banner used to identify troops on the field. (These banners can be seen all over the place in the films Ran and Kagemusha.)
Armours not meant to use sode may incorporate kohire (“small wings”), jutting out from the watagami over the point of the shoulder.
Many armours incorporate a padded panel over the shoulders which is attached to the watagami. In the cheapest armours that incorporate this feature, this padding is a simple U-shaped section along the shoulders. More extensive versions include small brigandine wings extending out over the tips of the shoulders, and a standing brigandine collar to protect the back of the neck. Other than this shock-absorbing piece, there is no padding on Japanese armour.
Solid dō are generally lined with a layer of thin leather that is glued down and lacquered into place. Dō are made of scale are not typically so lined, however. Many cheaper armours are lined with heavy cloth or brocade glued into place. These linings are the last thing done, so all the lacing is finished and the fittings installed before the lining is set in place. Only the cheapest armours are left bare.
The lining is only for the body of the dō. It does not include the kanagu mawari, which have been (if required) lined before assembly.
To keep things straight, I should clarify a point of terminology. When I speak of “sets” of kusazuri, I refer to vertical rows of tassets. When I speak of “lames,” I refer to the individual plates in a set. A dō may have five sets of kusazuri with four lames; that is, five tassets ringing the body, each with four hanging plates.
There is no set rule as to the number of sets of kusazuri, or of lames. The lower the number of lames, the cheaper the armour. Retainer armours will have as a rule three or four lames, while armour for the rank and file will have five and (rarely) six. Most commonly an armour will have six or seven sets. If there is an odd number, the odd kusazuri is, of course, front and center protecting the goolies. One feature of the yukinoshita dō is the extreme number of narrow sets—often eleven.
Retainer-grade armours will have the yurugi ito (suspensory lacing) in sugake. All other armours will typically have kebiki-laced yurugi ito, even when the rest of the armour is laced in sugake odoshi. The yurugi ito is 4"-6" long; in ō-yoroi, however, the yurugi ito is no longer than any other row of suspensory lacing.
One alternative to suspensory lacing which appeared in the latter half of the sixteenth century is the suspensory panel. A leather panel or a lightly padded cloth faced in mail takes the place of the yurugi ito. Occasionally, a few rows of odoshige would be run in-and-out down each panel as an accent, to give the impression of lacing.
Another feature appearing about this same time is the removable kusazuri. Instead of being suspended directly from the dō, the kusazuri hang from a narrow belt of leather that is itself attached to the dō at several spots by pairs of ties going through small holes. Sakakibara Kōzan considered removable kusazuri to be a practical feature, given that it made armours easier to stow, and that they made it easier to ford shallow rivers by simply removing the kuzazuri so they wouldn’t get soaked.
The kusazuri shown above-left exhibits both the afore-mentioned features: it is both removable, and uses a mail-clad panel for suspension.
The most noticeable decoration on many armours seen in films (notably Shōgun) is a dinner-plate-sized display of the owner’s crest on the front of the dō. In fact, this is common, but only on retainer armours, in which case the crest is that of their clan or lord. Samurai of rank—who could afford more distinctive armour—were generally identified by their helmet style, their helmet crests, or even their own personal standards carried into battle by a well-trained flunkie. Many surviving retainer-grade armours display this feature; no daimyō armours do.
The color of the plates and the lacing are the truest form of “decoration” on Japanese armour. Contrary to an oft-repeated chestnut, the color of the lacing does not say anything about the owner or his intentions. If that were the case, he must perforce be expected to have several suits of armour at all times, with different colors of lacing (today I feel fierce, today I expect to die...) or have to figure a way to unlace and relace armour from day to day without taking everything apart.