Kawari Kabuto and the Great Warlords of the "Sengoku"

by Agustín J. (Augie) Rodríguez
Jul 13, 2018
samurai armor
Ii Naomasa (1561-1602) at
Sekigahara (1600), bust by
Agustín J. Rodríguez

[Author’s note: This article was first published in the French journal Figurines as "Le Samourai: un grand seigneur de guerre du Sengoku" (no. 29. [Aug.-Sept. 1999], pp. 50-53; translated by Dominique Breffort.). What appears before you is a revised and updated edition of this article, published here for the first time. AJR]

Samurai. The word conjures images of fierce oriental warriors in ornate silks, laced armour, and horn-bedecked helmets brandishing gleaming swords of near-mythical qualities. While this is not altogether a false impression, it is somewhat of a romantic and simplistic notion. The feudal Japanese warrior class is victim to the same misconceptions as its Western counterpart of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. To complicate matters are the seemingly insurmountable language barrier, and a general lack of familiarity with Oriental culture and history: the former can be worked around; the latter can be overcome.

Anything but a cursory overview of the evolution of Japanese armour is beyond the scope of an article such as this; but there are some things to look for, and perhaps even comparisons to be made with what was taking place in the West. What most think of as the "classic" samurai is in fact the early feudal Japanese warrior (a prime example is Ray Lamb's now classic Taisho) -- much as many might consider a mailed and surcoated "crusader" the prototypical European knight or man-at-arms. The Kamakura period (ca. 1186 - ca. 1333) is characterized by extremely colourful and ornately laced, albeit "boxy", armours (ô-yoroi and early dô-maru) with huge shoulder guards (sode), and helmets (kabuto) with sweeping neckguards (shikoro), adorned with imposing gilt, stylized horns (kuwagata). The Muromachi period (ca. 1334 - ca. 1572) represents a transitional period in the history of Japanese armour that roughly corresponds to a similar evolutionary parallel in Western Europe. Whereas in the latter we see a transition from mail to plate, in Japan we witness a "streamlining" of armour as it becomes more form-fitting, its components reduced in size, relatively less ornate and arguably more functional. In Europe, armour evolved in response to the changing nature of warfare; in Japan, despite an ongoing distancing from the style of warfare dominated by a mounted archer nobility and an ever-increasing diversification within the field armies, there is no overwhelming "evolutionary" pressure to simplify the harness (gusoku), save for practicality, cost, and supply. The overture to the Sengoku would place hitherto unseen demands on the armourers' craft and the nobility's purse owing to the extended time in the field and the increase in the number of forces fielded.

It is in the "Sengoku" (roughly translated as "The Age of the Country at War") and the Momoyama Period (ca. 1572 - ca. 1602) that we see the full flowering of the art and craft of the Japanese armourer. The armour is now fully streamlined and the ornate lacing has all but disappeared -- plate and broad lamellar bands have replaced intricately- laced individual lamellae, and in many cases lacing on the cuirass (dô) exists solely for decorative purpose: the armour is now largely assembled with countersunk and lacquered-over rivets. Kabuto and their associated components are likewise vastly simplified and close-fitting. There is little doubt that the contact with Europeans and the introduction of firearms in Japan served as a catalyst to this evolutionary trend, but the way had been paved independent of contact with the West.

Kawari-kabuto. One uniquely Japanese manifestation in this period was the kawari-kabuto--the "extraordinary (or 'fantastic') helmet"; however, again, there are parallels to be drawn. The armourer's craft in Europe during the late 15th and 16th c. evolved into the armourer's art as the nature of warfare changed. Armies of professional soldiers armed with increasingly devastating firearms were largely displacing the role of the armoured nobility in battle. The warrior nobility was being challenged on all fronts--militarily, socially, politically, and economically. Thus, armour became a symbol of status and rank: incredibly ornate and fantastic--even grotesque!--harnesses were produced as symbols of a waning supremacy and as examples of haute couture. While armour never became an item of dress, courtly or otherwise, in Japan, the emergence of increasingly well-armed -- and armoured! -- feudal armies forced the nobility, the great warlords and generals, to seek professional and socio-military "distance" on the battlefield. This was visually accomplished primarily through the medium of the kabuto.

Kawari-kabuto, as headgear, are unique in the history of warfare. In Europe, the ornately crested and mantled helm was commonplace, even de rigeur, on the tournament field, but it is open to speculation to what degree, if any, it was worn on the battlefield. Its purpose can arguably be said to have been largely decorative, with shield and horse mantling being the primary "identifiers" or heraldic "calling cards". On the other hand, in Japan, whereas entire armies might be outfitted in the same style and colour of armour sporting the same flags and other means of identification, the helmets of the great warlords were their primary means to announce to the opponent who they would be facing. As one Japanese scholar asserts, the "kawari kabuto were made with the idea of calling attention to the existence of one person: the wearer." (Sasama, p. 28) Finally, as with the finest Kostümharnisches in Europe, it was a very obvious expression of status and wealth.

Construction/style. Through the mid-16th c., the hachi (helmet bowl) was comprised primarily of a series of riveted, wedge-shaped lamellae. Albeit functional, it would be largely replaced by a simpler, more functional and ultimately more protective type of head covering: the zunari bachi. Also referred to as the three-plate helmet, it is immediately identifiable by the clean, streamlined surfaces of two lateral plates connected by a broad medial plate. Soon after its introduction, it had been adopted by lord and vassal alike due to its superior qualities.

The introduction of the zunari bachi paved the way for the kawari kabuto. The daimyôs of the pre-Sengoku could be distinguished by how ornately their kabuto was fitted: the length and span of the kuwagata, the breadth of the shikoro, the pattern of the lacing, or the very number of plates comprising the helmet bowl. No longer -- the zunari bachi came devoid of embellishment or anything that would compromise functionality and protection. Thus, with one more visible manifestation of a waning dominion taken away from them, the daimyô, in conjunction with armourers and artisans, took matters into their own hands. Some would retain the old style, albeit in modified form, and replace kuwagata of near-ridiculous proportions with more personal and imposing maedate (forecrests). The vast majority, however, adopted the zunari bachi. Most used it as a platform for a spectacularly diverse array of maedate, wakidate (side crests--e.g., horns), kashiradate (top crests--e.g., panaches), and ushirodate (back crests--e.g., panaches and hair falls, as well as rigid decorative elements). But some would take it beyond what amounted to simple embellishment via the addition of decorative elements, and the new style hashi became the foundation for a creation that was at once personal and artistic, without diminishing the protective qualities of that which lay beneath: the kawari kabuto, and its sculptural superstructure of iron, wood, bamboo, and/or harikake (lacquered paper or leather).

The busts. It is easy to see why I am eagerly engaged in executing a series of busts depicting the great military personalities of Feudal Japan in the latter half of the 16th c. and their at times-literally-fantastic helmets. The artistic and esthetic parameters of the bust allow me to focus upon and hopefully capture the character and the personality of my subject. With a bust I am limited to an area roughly 2 head-lengths square, not including the headwear, to convey the entire personality of the subject. I cannot rely on the clothing or the pose to account for what I was unable to convey in the area above the diaphragm. For me, it is the well-executed portrait bust that is the ultimate challenge of this art form -- as an artist I must capture the essence of the individual in an area accounting for less than 20% of the subject. The appeal lies in that I am able to execute a reasonable, if not exact, likeness of the subject in a scale large enough where subtlety of expression and aspect of look can be brought into play while giving me the latitude to detail the helmet to the fullest.

Portraiture. Period Japanese portraiture is difficult to come by; when it is available, it tends to be stylized to varying degrees, often hearkening back to earlier periods. Thus, as a rule, reasonable likenesses of the subject are not usually at the artist's disposal. Nonetheless, if one approaches the period print as a caricature, and acknowledges that the underpinning of any good caricature is an exaggeration of the salient feature(s) of its subject, then one can at least "anchor" the likeness. For example, a future project, HONDA Tadakatsu, one of Ieyasu's original four devas and his closest companion, renown for his antlered kabuto, is invariably depicted with a nose approximating grotesque dimensions, bulging eyes, and unusually long hair. If the exaggeration is moderated, one is on the way to establishing a reasonable likeness of this great daimyô.

There are two other sources which I turn to often and rely upon heavily. First is the modern statuary of these famous individuals which can be found all over Japan, usually as a commemorative monument at the site of a great battle or on castle grounds. While largely in the shadow of its Western cousins, Japanese statuary is dynamic, powerful, and what it arguably lacks in refinement is more than made up by capturing the "presence" and "attitude" of the individual. Secondly, narrative description. Though I am largely limited to Western translations, thus ever at the mercy of the translators and their ability to accurately and effectively not only the translate but capture the "spirit" of the passage, they can prove to be invaluable in establishing not only the look, but the character and personality of the subject.

Painting. There is no need to go into any great depth with regard to this matter, as each miniaturist will apply his or her own preferences to the execution of the piece. All the examples presented in this article are painted in artist's oils over an undercoat of Vallejo colors. Oils afford me the flexibility to depict the various textures of the different materials, as well as the different levels of sheen represented, using a single medium while avoiding the use of post-application overcoats. All lacing and small detail work were done using Vallejo colors due to their brilliance, opacity, and excellent coverage. The latter two qualities are critical since I am painting over Liquin-enhanced oils, my preferred approach to representing lacquered surfaces. All lacquered surfaces were executed by carefully glazing increasingly dilute tints of alkyd painting medium (commonly known under the Winsor & Newton tradename of Liquin) onto the item. Due to this medium's excellent self-leveling qualities, the end-result is a smooth shiny surface. I choose to take it one step further to reflect armour on campaign: the uniform shine is reduced to a satiny finish by brushing on a coat of Dorland's Wax thinned with white spirits. After allowing the spirits to evaporate, the surface is first buffed with a flat brush, and then polished with a soft, lint-free cloth.

"Lord of the Red Devils". The portrait bust of II Naomasa (1561-1602), the first "Lord of the Red Devils" (aka oni) and one of Ieyasu's shi-tenno, as he would have appeared at the great denouement at Sekigahara in 1600, proved to be a challenge on several fronts: 1) it was the first bust where the compound curves of the exposed zunari bachi would be depicted; 2) it had been decided beforehand that the wakidate were to be produced in photoetched brass (this would be my first venture in this medium); and lastly, 3) it would represent a departure from the most popular and available depictions of this great daimyô: not only is there is no accurate representation of Ii Naomasa in Western references that I am aware of, but his armour is usually misrepresented as well.

Ii Naomasa armor
Ii Naomasa (1561-1602)
at Sekigahara (1600),
bust by Agustín J. Rodríguez

The latter is somewhat disconcerting as the armour belonging to and worn by Ii Naomasa survives to this day in the Ii family collection. While it is the proto-typical Ii armour whose seminal elements would be identified with the Ii clan throughout the post-Momoyama Edo Period, it is distinctive in its form reflecting the austere lines of a battle harness, and the fact that what lacing there is is a dark blue, not the yellow ochre that is traditionally associated with Ii armour. And then there is the remarkable kabuto. Combining both towering wooden wakidate sheathed in gold leaf, and a sumptuous fall of yak hair attached to the top of the kabuto, this kabuto is unique in that it is apparently reinforced with what appears to be a secondary medial plate, though it may very well be just a thicker single plate. In any event, it is in all probability a reflection of the preponderance of firearms in the days of the advent of the Tokugawa Shôgunate.

I do not subscribe to the techniques that involve using artificial hair (crepe hair, etc.) to simulate horse manes, tails, and in this case, helmet crests; however, I decided to make an exception provided I could find a suitable medium, as the wispiness and randomness of the white yak hair I was striving to simulate could not possibly be reproduced in sculptured form [Note: a two-piece resin crest is provided in the kit]. Mohair as used for dolls' wigs, etc. proved to be such a medium in every respect.

Just as it is nigh unto impossible to reproduce the yak-hair kashiradate as a casting, it is only slightly less difficult to reproduce the effect of gold leaf using paint. Since scale-effect is not a factor here, the most obvious and simplest solution is to actually gold-leaf the wakidate! This is neither difficult, nor time consuming -- nor expensive! A trip to the art-supply store provided all the materials I would need: sheets of gold leaf, adhesive size, and satin-finish sealant -- I already had burnishers, metal and rubber, in my "tool kit". After carefully reading the instructions, I was rewarded with beautifully gold-leafed "horns" some 40 minutes later!

The Lord of Kaga. Though perhaps not as well known in the West as some of the other subjects in the series, current and future, MAEDA Toshiie (1538-1599) embodied the samurai ideals at a time when such things were beginning to be considered of lesser practicality. As a consummate warrior, it is the opinion of some historians that Maeda was the only daimyô with the capabilities and the resources to have successfully challenged Tokugawa Ieyasu. As a patron of the arts, he vigorously promoted the art of gold-leafing in his domain, and was a protegé‚ of Senno Rikyu, the grand master of tea ceremony: under Maeda's rule, Kanazawa soon became a cultural center on a par with Edo and Kyoto.

Maeda armor
Maeda Toshiie (1538?-1599), bust by
Agustín J. Rodríguez

Maeda is not only readily identifiable by, but few helmets embody the essential elements of the kawari kabuto as do the namazubi variants. The "catfish tail" kabuto were the most extravagant and the tallest of the kawari kabuto, and Maeda's personal variant was all the more so with the built-up crest (probably of leather) leafed in fine gold. The balance of the kabuto was gold-lacquered, and the entire helmet was set off with a drape of costly white yak hair over the shikoro. Our interpretation differs somewhat from published illustrations in that it is based on a photograph of the surviving helmet, as well as additional reference material graciously provided by the office of the Honourable Mayor of Kanazawa.

In sculpting this fascinating piece, I attempted to recreate this helmet as accurately as possible. While I did not go so far as to build the crest over a three-plate zunari bachi, the design of the underlying hachi was taken into account. The "catfish tail" was roughly modeled using Atlas Epoxybond (a very fine-grained two-part (A & B) epoxy putty). The rough shape was then reduced with a motor-tool, before the final lines were carved and refined using blade, files, and sandpaper. It was imperative that the surface be as near-perfectly smooth as possible so that it would convincingly depict the metallic finish irrespective of medium.

As with Ii's wakidate, I chose to gold-leaf Maeda's imposing crest. Considering that the rest of the kabuto, as well as the dô, are gold lacquered, gold leafing not only recreates the original finish, but it provides the necessary contrast between the various gold-coloured elements in the gusoku.

Maeda Haori
Maeda Toshiie (1538?-1599), displaying his
haori and Shoki the Demon-Queller; bust
by Agustín J. Rodríguez

Rather than limit the miniaturist to a particular color scheme, I left the choice of colour/s of Maeda's haori (campaign jacket) to the discretion of the modeler. As I was sculpting the bust, there was never any doubt as to my interpretation of the haori. One of Maeda's standards bore the figure of Shoki the Demon-Queller, a prominent figure in Sino-Japanese mythology; and Dr. Turnbull makes reference to the fact that Maeda wore a campaign jacket upon which his wife had embroidered the figure of Shoki. Basing my depiction of Shoki as it appears on Maeda's standard in the Anegawa screen, I applied the design using a succession of ultra-thin glazes of Cadmium Red Medium. Once the figure of Shoki had been "sketched" with the glazes, I began to selectively apply broad strokes of thinned Cadmium Red Medium Light, followed by successively finer, defining strokes of Cadmium Red Medium Deep, until the Demon Queller himself was before me, taking pride of place on Maeda's haori. [NOTE: Since painting this piece and the publication of this article, I have acquired RGS #15--Shizugatake no tatakai, which contains a plate (p.16) of the surviving jinbaori.]

Conclusion. I selected the kabuto of II Naomasa and MAEDA Toshiie for this article as examples of the prevailing forms of the headgear of the Japanese warlord of the second half of the 16th century. Due to the vast diversity of types and the personal element involved, it would be difficult to say that any one form was more popular than others. Religious elements, however, were quite common, as were manifestations of the natural world (for example, Maeda's namazubi) of which the samurai was very much a conscious part. Thus was the kawari kabuto much more than a mere helmet or a "heraldic" conveyance--it was as much an extension of the samurai himself-- physically and spiritually--as his swords.


I hasten to point out that I am not able to read Japanese beyond the recognition of select kanji; I am, however, familiar with technical Japanese transcribed in Rômaji (Western characters). I am therefore particularly indebted to Dr. Stephen R. Turnbull for his entire corpus of work that has made the socio-military history of Japan and, especially, the culture of the bushi available to the West. The same may be said of the work of Ian Bottomley, Curator of the Oriental collections at the Royal Armouries (Leeds, UK), who through his research and lucid writing has made the history and evolution of Japanese armour a much easier and more pleasant and enlightening journey. My copies of the works of these gentlemen and scholars are beginning to manifest the wear of much enthusiastic use. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not recognize the following: Mr. Bill Dunkle, who has toiled with attempting to enlighten this gaijin on the mysteries of kanji, and whose enthusiastic support and voracious appetite for things Japanese have made available to me precious reference material not normally accessible to the average Westerner; Mr. Jim Johnston, the man behind Fort Duquesne Military Miniatures, without whom this great passion of mine would still be stuck in the "future projects" box; M. Dominique Breffort, for affording me the opportunity to share my passion with his readership, and his enthusiasm, encouragement, and friendship; and to the webmasters and co-hosts of The Samurai Archives, Chris E. West and Forest W. Seal, for the opportunity to make this article available to a wider audience, and—simply--for their magnificent website! And finally, to all those who have purchased the busts, I would like to thank for their patronage and their enthusiastic response to the series.


Chunichi Shinbunsha, ed. Ii-Ke Meiho Ten [Treasures from the Ii Family Collection]. Tokyo: ?, 1986.

Sakakibara Kôzan. Chûko Katchû Seisakuben [The Manufacture of Armour and Helmets in Sixteenth Century Japan]. Edo, 1800. Trans. by T. Wakameda. Rev. and ed. by H. Russell Robinson. London: Holland, 1963.

Sasama, Yoshihiko, et al. Spectacular Helmets of Japan, 16th-19th Century. Catalog to an exhibition organized by the Japan House Gallery (NY) and the Assn. for the Research and Preservation of Japanese Helmets and Armor (Tokyo), Fall 1985-Winter 1986. NY: Japan Society, 1985.

Yoshiaki Shimizu, ed. Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture, 1185-1868. Wash., DC: Natl. Gallery of Art, 1988.