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Japanese Maille: A History
Article © MAIL User: MusicMan
Japanese Maille: A History
In this article I will attempt to talk about the three major types of maille (Kusari/Gusari) that were used in Japan during the Edo Period, 1603 - 1868. I will also attempt to give some insight into some of the ways the different weaves were used in making their armor. Please understand that I am no expert in this field, but have an interest as of late in the differences, so I will share what I have learned with you.
There are three major types of Historical Japanese Kusari. So-gusari, commonly referred to as Japanese 4 in 1, which forms a square design, Asa no ha gusari, commonly referred to as Japanese 6 in 1, which forms a hexagonal pattern, and the Nanban gusari which is the European 4 in 1 weave hung "the wrong way" so that it expands top-to-bottom instead of the traditional European way of expanding side-to-side. There are many variants of the above listed kusari, each with different characteristics and functions, and of course each with different names. Many of the variations are as simple as changing the type of rings used, so you may encounter other names for what seems to be the same thing; for now we will look at just the basic patterns of Japanese kusari.
There are three main differences between the Japanese kusari and European maille and I will try to give a brief description of those differences. The most unique aspect of the Japanese kusari is that the Japanese used rings of different shapes in making their kusari, Nanban kusari being the exception. The two ring shapes that the Japanese used were circular rings and oval rings. This is very unique because the Japanese seem to be the only country in the world to develop kusari using two different ring styles, to my knowledge. The oval rings used were usually split rings, meaning they have more than one turn in the ring, similar to our modern key ring; they also used oval rings that were not split rings. The circular rings of the Japanese kusari were much smaller than their European counterparts: 1/8" compared with 3/8". This was a big factor when you look at rings-per-inch that protected the body.
Another unique characteristic of Japanese kusari is that all the rings were butted, meaning the Japanese did not weld or rivet each ring like most of the European maille. In butted maille the ends of the rings are touching and held there by the strength of the metal. I have yet to find an example of welded or riveted rings in Japanese kusari. George Cameron Stone in his book A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times, Together with Some Closely Related Subjects states; "The Japanese mail is always made from unriveted links, but the wire is very hard and highly tempered so that the mail is as strong as the riveted. . . Most of the wire in the East is stronger and harder then that used in Europe." While this is one person's opinion, I am unaware of any testing that has been done comparing European and Japanese maille to confirm or deny any of the theories.
The final unique characteristic of the Japanese kusari is that all examples of full kusari shirts were sewn onto a fabric/leather backing of some kind. In Europe it was common to have shirts of maille and than have a gambeson or padded shirt under. The Japanese just sewed the kusari directly to the cloth, obviating the need for the extra step in dressing the wearer.
The use of plates is something that is almost always seen associated with Japanese kusari. Up until recently it was thought that kusari was used only to connect plates and pieces of armor together, but that has been found to be incorrect. Square or rectangle armor plates would be called karuta, while octagon-shaped plates were called kikko. Examples of these plates can be seen in all types of Japanese armor including gauntlets, head gear, shirts and other pieces of armor. To exclude these pieces in a description of kusari would leave out much of what we see kusari connected to in Japanese armor.
The Different Weaves and Some Uses
So Gusari (Japanese 4-1)
There were two different types of the Japanese 4-1 kusari and each of them have different names for reasons stated above. All of the variations were constructed using different types of links, but they still maintained the same box pattern, using one central circular ring and 4 other rings connecting to it horizontally and vertically in an orthogonal grid. Below I will try to show the basic pattern followed by a couple examples of how the weave was utilized.
So gusari- So gusari used oval rings for the four vertical rings connecting to the central, horizontal circular ring. Both the oval and circular rings were butted, not riveted.
As can be seen in figure 1, which the depicts So gusari pattern, the central circular rings were commonly of a slightly thicker wire than the oval rings. Figure 2 shows how this weave was used when attaching to armor plates, or karuta. The last picture is a sample of how kusari was sometimes hidden within a garment, which is a good example of how the So gusari pattern was used for the inner layer of an entire jacket. The kusari inside this jacket covers over 95% of the jacket and until recently it was almost unheard of using this pattern for an entire jacket.
So gusari pattern
So gusari with plate armor
Hidden So gusari
Seiro gusari- Seiro gusari used the same oval rings as So gusari except the oval rings had split rings, made of multiple turns, similar to modern key rings. The use of this type of oval ring made the kusari stronger and was used in places where flexibility and strength were needed. (Figures 4-6)
Figure 4 shows the basic pattern with the split oval rings, while figure 5 shows two different weaves and depict how this pattern was attached to different types of fabrics. Figure 6 shows a jacket almost entirely made from Seiro gusari and shows how blank spots were used to lighten the piece and provide added flexibility.
Being a very flexible pattern these patterns were used extensively through out the piece of armor and commonly were used as connectors between different pieces of armor. These patterns were also the only ones used, except for Nanban gusari, to make full jackets of maille that were either sewn onto an existing jacket or between two layers of material on a jacket.
Seiro gusari pattern
Seiro gusari and Nanban gusari
Seiro gusari jacket
Asa no ha gusari / Hana gusari (Japanese 6-1)
This pattern of kusari formed hexagonal patterns and was a very dense and heavy kusari. Found mainly on the forearms and hands, this kusari was used to protect the fragile bones from being broken or severed. I have seen a couple examples of this on auction sites and in every instance this weave was used to protect the back of the hand. Unfortunately I have not found any examples that I could post here due to copyright laws so if anybody has one that could be used it would be appreciated.
Hana gusari pattern
Nanban gusari (European 4-1)
Nanban gusari is a late addition to the Japanese kusari. It is thought to have been introduced to the Japanese by the Dutch traders that landed in Japan in 1542. The Dutch brought examples of their maille that totally covered the head (coif) and were stand alone full suits of maille. Like any culture the Japanese modified and integrated this new kusari style into their armor making techniques.
Hung so that the pattern expanded up-and-down, instead of the traditional European way of side-to-side, this pattern was used for everything from headgear to full jackets. The Japanese further distinguished their kusari from the European model by again sewing the kusari directly to a fabric or leather garment for more protection and attaching it to kikko.
Figure 8 is a close up of the Nanban gusari pattern and what the fabric looks like that it was commonly attached to. Figures 9 and 10 are examples of how the weave were used in different pieces of armor and were incorporated with plate armor pieces. Figure 11 shows how two weaves were combined in different ways to provide the protection desired. The top of this jacket is the Nanban gusari while the bottom portion of the jacket uses Seiro gusari with open spaces for added flexibility and make the piece lighter.
Nanban gusari pattern
Nanban gusari with karuta (plates)
Nanban gusari helmet
Nanban gusari and Seiro gusari jacket
There are many different types, I believe 16 different historical patterns, of Japanese kusari that have been cataloged. Many of them have different names because they use different types of rings or were used for different functions. I hope that this article will give you a taste of what you can expect when looking into Japanese kusari.
1. "Japanese Chain Armor as presented to the Atenveldt Collegium", http://www.iaincaradoc.org/~iain/gusari.html
2. "An Online Japanese Armour Journal", Anthony J. Bryant, http://www.sengokudaimyo.com/katchu/katchu.html
3. Pictures used with permission from Eric at http://samuraiantiqueworld.com/
4. "My Armoury.com", http://www.myarmoury.com/feature_jpn_armour.html#mark7
5. Georgy Stone, "A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times, Together with Some Closely Related Subject"
Original URL: http://www.mailleartisans.org/articles/articledisplay.php?key=608