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The Yukinoshita Do by Ian Bottomley


  • The Yukinoshita Do by Ian Bottomley

    Yukinoshita Dō
    By Ian Bottomley

    With special thanks to Takamura M. and Dr. Orikasa T. whose work I have incorporated here.

    During the long campaigns of the Sengoku Jidai traditional armours made from thousands of small scales, lacquered and laced together with silk braid were found wanting in many ways. Amongst their defects was the fact that they were expensive and time consuming to make, in rain the silk lacing absorbed water and almost doubling the armour’s weight, and that they were difficult to keep clean and to dry out in a camp. The solution eventually arrived at to solve these problems was to replace the rows of scales with plates fastened with the minimum of lacing.

    Although not immediately obvious is that the fact that the establishment of ashigaru units in the Sengoku daimyo’s armies was also an important factor in the development of these new armours. Unlike the samurai who to some extent fought as independent units with their retainers, the ashigaru could be deployed tactically in units. To make them even more effective, they were soon equipped with simple armours, generally a ni-mai-dō, a conical jingasa of iron or rawhide, simple kote and a pair of suneate. The dō, which were made in their thousands, were almost all yokohagi okegawa dō, assembled from horizontal plates riveted together, lacquered with their lord’s device or heraldry painted on the front. Lacking the many years of training needed to use the traditional weapons of the samurai, arming the ashigaru was resolved by issuing them with some sort of a sword, and in many cases a simple spear. It was this weapon that contributed to the change to modern armours, or tosei gusoku.

    Prior to the use of the spear, armour was designed to protect the wearer from the cuts of swords, naginata and nagamaki as well as resist the relatively low energy impact of arrows. Spears on the other hand could deliver a penetrating thrust of far greater energy and could be directed to what were weak spots that in the past had not been particularly vulnerable. For example, a spreading shikoro devised to protect the shoulders from the downward cut of a blade left gaps on either side of the face that were an obvious target. A spear thrust inside the shikoro resulted in the blade sliding around the inside and striking the opponent’s face. By making the shikoro fit closer to the head reduced this danger but left the shoulders vulnerable so the solid part of the watagami widened and gained armoured extensions to the outer edge, the kobire. The kusazuri also underwent changes. During the early Muromachi period it had been common to divide them into 10 or more sections to give greater freedom of movement to the hips and thighs. Whist this had little effect on their ability to defend against cuts, the multiple gaps became an obvious and easy target for a spearman. As a result, the number of sections of gessan as they became know was reduced to 6 or 7. Finally a powerful spear thrust could penetrate the lower abdomen that had been protected from arrows by the obi and the underclothes. By adding a fifth plate in the nakagawa, this area became better protected and also allowed the dō to sit on the hips and take some weight off the shoulders.

    We know nothing of the makers of these new types of dō for the simple reason that those who handled skins and hides were regarded as being defiled and hence unclean by a population that was largely Buddhist. During the early decades of the 16th century some armourers began to add marks inside helmets indicating the quality of the work but we still do not know any by name. It wasn’t until later in the century that actual signatures began to appear in helmet bowls, one of which was Yoshimichi who was making 32 and 62 plate suji bachi. The first group we know to actually sign dō had their origins in the Yukinoshita district of Kamakura. They had left there and travelled to Aizu in 1379 with Ashina Naomori ( 1323 – 1391) who had been appointed shugo of the province by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. These armourers continued use Yukinoshita as a group name and at this early period would be making traditional armours for the Ashina family. At some time around the middle of the 16th century, like other armour making groups, they seem to have produced their own interpretation of the yokohagi okegawa dō.

    By chance one such dō survives that appears to be a precursor to the yukinoshita dō these Yukinoshita armourers eventually produced. This dō differs from the more usual go-mai-dō in that it tapers strongly towards the waist so that it sits on the hips better. The watagami are connected to the oshitsuke no ita by hinges with removable pins and have kobire hinged to them, thus allowing this dō to be flat-packed to make storage and transporting easier,. The fact that it has kobire shows it was designed to be worn with a helmet having close fitting shikoro. We can get a rough idea when this dō was made since the waki ita are raised in the centre, a good indicator of a dō made during the later part of the Muromachi Jidai that ended in 1573. Although it is similar in shape to a true yukinoshita dō it is really a yokohagi okegawa dō. Like all okegawa dō it had the advantage of being made from relatively small pieces of iron and because they were lacquered, even these plates could be made from scraps riveted together. The famous mogami haramaki in the Royal Armouries collection is made with plates that x-rays show have been patched together from smaller pieces riveted together before lacquering.


    Just when the accepted form of the yukinoshita dō was devised is difficult to say, but almost certainly after the introduction of guns in 1543. The weakness of a dō made from multiple plates riveted together, as in the case of the okegawa dō illustrated above, must have become obvious in encounters such as Nagashino in 1575. It did mean however that the smiths had to produce pieces of iron in much larger sizes. Clearly the Yukinoshita smiths could do this and began producing dō in which all the major sections were made from large, solid plates, except for the back which is invariably of three vertical plates. This change from making armour components from a few larger plates rather than many smaller pieces also applied to helmet bowls. The usual multiplate 32 or 62 plate helmet suffered from having numerous riveted joints, each of which was a point of weakness. If you consider a typical joint in a helmet, one plate is fastened to the next by a few quite small diameter rivets. If hit by a bullet a plate, although supported to some extent by the plate it overlaps, deforms and relies on those few rivets to stop it giving way all together. It is these joints that are the weak spots in these armours. In other words, the fewer the number of plates in both dō and helmets, the fewer the joints and the greater the strength. That this was appreciated is shown by the appearance of zunari kabuto and helmets with fewer, larger plates. Just when these changes happened may be judged by the fact that Tokugawa Ieyasu had two armours with zunari kabuto. There seems to be some doubt about when they were made but the gold lacquering is compatible with the era of Hideyoshi, so a date of around 1580 – 1590 would seem likely.

    It is around this same time that Date Masamune enters the picture. Date Masamune (1567 – 1636) was the eldest son of Date Terumune and was born in Yonezawa Castle in the province of Dewa. He took part in his first battle against the Soma familiy at the age of 14 and by the age of 17 he had become daimyo when his father retired. He was famous for only having one eye - various reasons being quoted from it being a congenital defect, to having smallpox when young, to being injured in battle. In 1584 one of his retainers, Ouchi Sadatsuna, defected to the Ashina leading Masamune to attack Aizu as well as their allies in Mutsu and Dewa provinces. He finally defeated the Ashina at the Battle of Suria ga Hara in 1589. At this point he moved out of Yonezawa and into the conquered territory, making Aizu his base. The Asina had held Kurokawa castle so presumably Date moved in there.

    As a Tohoku daimyo, he was called on to assist Toyotomi Hideyoshi, resisting at first but eventually submitting. As a reward he was given Iwatesawa castle and the surrounding lands just north of Sendai, rebuilding the castle and calling it Iwadeyama. He later took part in the Korean invasions but not in any command position. After Hideyoshi’s death he supported Tokugawa Ieyasu and played a major role at the battle of Seki ga Hara, being rewarded by Ieyasu by being given the Sendai domain. In 1604 he moved out of Aizu with 52,000 vassals to the village of Sendai, turning it into a large and prosperous city.

    It was whilst he was in Aizu that he seems to have first encountered yukinoshita dō, although it was not called that by either the Ashina or the Date clan, but hodoki dō, referring to the fact that it could be divided into sections by pulling out the hinge pins. However, the name yukinishita dō will be retained here to refer to the armours he first encountered whilst in Aizu. Whereas many daimyo were obsessed by fine swords, it seems that Masamune was far more interested in armour. From the few surviving volumes of his diaries we know that when he was in his early twenties he gave 26 armours as presents, receiving 14 as gifts and bought another 10. What is clear from these references is that what is being given are not complete armours as we know them, but separate dō and helmets. In other words the idea that an armour was what we would call a ‘set’ was not what was not considered important at the time. Because Masamune was fascinated with and recognised the importance of good armour, the yukinoshita dō made a big impression on him. These armours were being made by smiths such as Yukinoshita Masaie, Hisaie, Masamune, Masazane and Naotsugu as well as Sasaki Suketsuna and others. We are told he searched out all the yukinoshita dō he could find, keeping some for himself and family and issuing the rest to his senior retainers.

    So what were the characteristics of these Aizu yukinoshita dō?
    Most importantly almost all were made of solid plates of iron. Only the back-plate being of three vertical plates riveted together.
    The whole exterior was black lacquered and the interior either black lacquered or lined with glued-on hemp. It is worth noting that some were made of nerigawa but these seem to be rare.
    The dō taper markedly to the waist.
    Most were go-mai- dō, but not all. Some were roku-mai- dō or were converted to roku-mai- dō later.
    The hinges were fastened to the outside of the plates not inside as was more usual.
    There was no lacing at all in the main body, the muna-ita was riveted to the main front-plate and the waki-ita to the side plates. All the other parts were connected together by hinges.
    The muna-ita was in the traditional Muromachi style, being flat on top with raised sections at each end.
    There are only three holes for the aibiki on the mune-ita and two on the watagami.
    The original kohaze were metal.
    There have simple, rounded gyoyo hinged to the ends of the watagami.
    They have holes for renjaku on the oshitsuke no ita and the base of the front-plate.
    The holes for the gessan are for sugake lacing. Usually only three pairs of holes for each section plus holes for a mimi-ito. Where the holes for a section of the gessan crosses a hinge, there will be a kohaze fitted into the yurugi ito so they could be totally separate.


    It was these captured yukinoshita dō that Masamune took with him when he was granted the domain of Sendai in 1604. After Date Masamune left Aizu, yukinoshita dō continued to be made there until approximately the date of the Osaka campaigns in the second decade of the 17th century and Yukinoshita Masaie and Hisaie are recorded as still being craftsmen in that area. So the idea that Date took the Yukinoshita smiths to Sendai is erroneous.

    Masamune was so impressed with the yukinoshita dō he had captured that he decided to arm the remainder of his troops with the same type of dō, employing Kaga no Daijo Munesada as his chief armourer (O-kakae) who had studied under the Yukinoshita smiths of Aizu. Munesada however did not stick exactly to the original pattern, introducing some changes of his own. The major difference was in lacing the muna-ita to the main front-plate rather than riveting it, and shaping it into the more-closer fitting Momoyama style with a turned-out upper edge to deflect spears. By tradition, this style has now become known as oshu- dō, Oshu being the abbreviated form of the province name. Other changes were also made. In some cases the single piece front-plate might be in two pieces or more commonly replaced by three vertical plates in a similar way to the back.
    So efficient were these armours that they gained a considerable reputation for quality and during the early years of the Edo period were being acquired by other daimyo. Whilst Date Masamune had been content to wear plain black lacquered armour, other daimyo had them gilded or decorated in other ways. Again we are fortunate in having an example covered with thin leather decorated with clouds. Other armourers copied the basic pattern to produce dō pandering to Daimyo taste. The Myochin and Yoshimichi and Munesuke in particular, produced dō that are based on the oshu style but with embossed decoration on the frontplate. By the Meiji era when these dō became redundant there seems to have been a trade in them for making ‘hamamono’. What the tourists wanted were souvenirs of the feudal era that they could take back home – cheap bone daggers, wretched lacquerware and uchidashi breastplates. By burning off the lacquer from redundant yukinoshita dō, what was left were large single plates of nice and soft iron that could be embossed with dragons or more often suitable kanji that resembled the front-plates of Myochin dō. Hundreds of these were sold and brought to the West. Quite often the hinges have been removed and they can usually be detected by having a rather crusty look to the russet patina.

    This the story of yukinoshita dō is not the simple picture in which Date Masamune plays the part of innovator. Yes he wore them and appreciated how superior they were, but it is perhaps better to say he popularised them rather than anything else.

    • gui
      gui commented
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      I just watch this post ..its really interesting ..i must visit the royal armouries ...
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  • The Yukinoshita Do by Ian Bottomley
    Forum Admin
    Yukinoshita Dō
    By Ian Bottomley

    With special thanks to Takamura M. and Dr. Orikasa T. whose work I have incorporated here.

    During the long campaigns of the Sengoku Jidai traditional armours made from thousands of small scales, lacquered and laced together with silk braid were found wanting in many ways. Amongst their defects was the fact that they were expensive and time consuming to make, in rain the silk lacing absorbed water and almost doubling the armour’s...
    09-21-2017, 06:43 PM