Art in Depth: Samurai Armor

Art in Depth: Samurai Armor

Learn about Japanese culture and the history of the Samurai by exploring this exquisite suit of Samurai armor from the 18th century.

Grade Level:
College, Grades 3-5, Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12
East Asia, Japan
Subject Area:
History and Social Science, Visual Arts
Activity Type:
Art in Depth

Art in Depth: Samurai Armor


In 2020 the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts acquired an exquisite suit of Samurai armor from the 18th century.  Learn more about the suit, Samurai culture, and related artworks. Though the samurai suit can only be in the galleries for limited amounts of time, this resource allows you to explore the history of the samurai, their importance in Japanese culture, and make connections to other works in the permanent collection.

The Samurai initially meant “one who serves,” referring to the warrior class in the Heian period (794–1185) when wealthy landowners hired warriors to protect their properties. In the 16th century, Japan was divided into numerous domains under the rule of powerful landlords, or daimyo, who were frequently at war.

Over centuries, Japanese armor, designed for high-ranking samurai, evolved from a chunky, heavy form to a lighter suit, allowing a mounted archer to fight on horseback. By the mid-16th century, the tosei type of armor was created, adding shoulder guards and a helmet to protect the entire body of an infantryman in sword combat. This innovation greatly reduced the weight of armor and improved the protection and mobility it provided.

The unification of the nation in 1603 ended a century-long turmoil. During the peaceful Edo period (1615–1868), the Tokugawa shogunate governed in Edo, today’s Tokyo, and the samurai became a symbol of the past glory.

Read more about the history of the Samurai below.

Take a Closer Look!

This suit of armor is composed of a five-panel cuirass (breastplate and backplate) fastened along the right side, shoulder guards, metal sleeves with laces, a skirt, underpants, and a helmet.


Samurai Armor with Andō-Family Crest, 18th century, lacquered and gilded iron alloy, silk thread, brocade, leather, papier-mâché, metal fittings. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Mr. Larry Aldrich, by exchange,2020.33.1-5.

Zochoten, Guardian of the South

This powerful figure, seen wearing armor very similar to the Samurai Armor in VMFA’s collection, depicts one of the four heavenly kings, protectors of the cardinal directions in the Buddha’s realm. The armor-clad guardian tramples demons under his feet and perhaps originally held a weapon in his right hand. Constructed with multiple sections of wood, this figure has an austere form and solid volume, a sculptural style typical of the early Kamakura period.

Ceremonial Accessories

Samurai Battle Paddle, 1716, Tochikudo (Japanese, died 1741-44), Lacquer on wood with mother-of-pearl inlay, metal fittings, silk tassel, bronze stand. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, gift of the Estate of Senator Hugh Scott, by exchange, 2021.523.

The Battle Paddle

A Samurai fan was used by a samurai commander to signal orders in the battlefield. The exquisite craftsmanship of this piece suggests that it was made for ritual service. This fan features mother-of-pearl inlay with the sun-and-moon motif on one side and two characters meaning “flying dragon” on the other side. Dated to 1716, the fan bears a signature and seal of Tochikudo, an established calligrapher active in Osaka during the mid-Edo period.


This pair of stirrups was cast in the shape of a cradle to support the feet of a rider. Lavishly inlaid silver chrysanthemum designs indicate this pair was intended for ceremonial use rather than the battlefield. The inscription at the edge reveals that this set was made by Nagakuni, a renowned metalsmith from Kashu, today’s Ishikawa Prefecture, who created numerous high-quality silver-inlaid stirrups during the mid-Edo period.


Woodblock Prints

The woodblock print series the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road, designed by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) and first published in 1833–34, contains fifty-five images among the most recognizable in all Japanese art. The Tokaido was a well-known pedestrian highway that connected Edo to Japan’s former capital of Kyoto, stretching roughly 320 miles along the eastern coastline of its central island of Honshu. First established in the 8th century, the Tokaido became increasingly trafficked in the early 1600s. This was due to the shogun’s requirement that hundreds of regional lords (daimyo) from across Japan travel annually to Edo where their families resided year-round, in effect centralizing his political power.

The most impressive scene on the Tokaido Road was the procession of feudal lords, known as daimyos. During the peaceful Edo period (1615-1868), the shogun military government distributed domains to daimyos, in return who were required to stay for two years in Edo serving the shogun.

In the image at left, Hiroshige depicts an early morning scene in Shinagawa on the Edo Bay, the first station of the Tokaido Road. Dressed in travel outfits of a straw hat and shoes, and carrying two swords, the daimyo’s attendants are passing through a street lined with food stalls, while the other pedestrians step aside to clear the street and show respect, as specified by the shogun law.

The Incense Ceremony

Kōdō, is a Japanese incense ceremony that deepens spiritual and sensory awareness. This ritual would often be performed by Samurai warriors as they prepared for battle.

This set of lacquers represents the style of the Oie school and is used in the incense ceremony (kodo), a ritual of the feudal aristocracy and the imperial family. The painted designs of pine, bamboo, and cherry blossoms symbolize longevity, strength, and prosperity.

The family crests on the lacquer indicate the marriage between two powerful feudal families: a cross in a circle for the bride’s Shimazu family, and the plum blossom for the groom’s Hisamatsu-Matsudaira family. The set was commissioned as a dowry for the wedding between two powerful feudal lords (daimyo) in January 1827.

The Noh Tradition

Noh is a classical form of Japanese theater that has been performed since the 14th century when it was reserved for the elite audience of the samurai. Noh performances combined dancing, music, and poetry and touched on a range of human conditions including love, jealousy, hatred and greed.

Featured here are examples of objects used during a Noh performance.

The Noh mask featured here is carved from a single piece of cypress wood and shows realistic facial features and a restrained yet powerful expression. The Chujo mask is believed to be modeled after Ariwara no Narihira (AD 825–880), a poet and a middle-ranking captain (chujo) in the imperial court.

During a Noh performance male actors wearing masks played both male and female roles.


The samurai class were followers of the Confucian philosophy which developed during an interval of political chaos that caused great destruction and suffering. Confucius thought that an emphasis on proper relationships in which one person was superior and the other inferior would lead to a peaceful and productive society. He defined the Five Great Relationships as ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, and friend and friend. Individuals fulfilled their obligations and responsibilities by following proper ritual behavior. Confucianism influenced every aspect of Chinese imperial culture, especially the outlook of scholar officials who administered the government.

Conservation of the Armor

Before the armor could go on display, extensive conservation work had to be carried out on its delicate silk fabric and silk lacing. A conservator specializing in textiles, was brought in to stabilize the fragile silk so that the armor could be dressed on a form without causing further damage. Overlays were made from nylon netting to protect the silk in weak areas and where splits had opened in the weave. Hard creases were humidified to prevent splitting along fold lines and areas of loose chain mail and open seams were re-secured by stitching through original stitch holes. The conservation treatment was successful, and all the fragile silk elements survived intact throughout the process of assembling the seventeen separate components of the armor together on the display form.


The form that the armor is assembled on is made from archival quality foam and fabric and was designed to ensure the armor does not undergo any further damage during display. Cotton twill tape and unobtrusive metal mounts support the heavier elements of the armor and are pinned into the foam form to take the weight off the fragile silk.

Why isn't this work on view?

For objects like the armor that include light sensitive materials such as dyed silk and lacquer, cumulative light exposure is limited by controlling the time on view. In this case, the armor was on view for six months and will be kept away from additional light exposure while in storage for five years before displaying it again.  This ensures that the colors of the silk and the sensitive lacquer surfaces will be preserved long into the future.