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Assistant Curator Scot Hurst traces the fascinating history of the Ii Naomasa Kabuto.

When faced with such a visually arresting display of brightly lacquered armour, moustachioed faceplates and gleaming blades, it is sometimes easy to overlook the more modest objects on display. I would like to take this opportunity to highlight one of these ‘overlooked treasures’, the Ii Kabuto.

Red and gold japanese helmet and face mask with a moustache.


On the 18th of September 1598 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the de-facto ruler of Japan, died leaving his infant son as his only successor. After 8 years of unity and relative peace, Japan was once again torn apart by bitter civil war as rival warlords sought to capitalise upon the ensuing power vacuum.

Foremost amongst these warriors were Ishida Mitsunari and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who would eventually meet in a final, epic battle at Sekigahara on the 21st of October 1600. Tokugawa was ultimately triumphant, eliminating all opposition and unifying Japan once more. Three years later Tokugawa assumed the title of Shogun, or military dictator of Japan, and ushered in a new era of peace and unity that would last for almost 250 years.

Front view of the kabuto, showing the golden crest to the front.

The restored crest, associated with the helmet, but probably a later addition (XXVIA.176)

Amongst Tokugawa’s most trusted and talented generals was a warrior called Ii Naomasa. Naomasa was a ferocious warrior, feared and respected equally by friend and foe alike. He was the living embodiment of the samurai ideal. Naomasa and his men would become infamous for wearing blood red armour in battle, earning themselves the nickname ‘The Red Devils,’ and a reputation just as terrifying. The Battle of Sekigahara would be Naomasa’s greatest triumph, as he charged ahead of the main Tokugawa advance to claim first blood against the enemy forces. This bravery and heroism, so characteristic of the samurai, would ultimately be his undoing. In the closing stages of the battle, while personally leading an attack, Ii Naomasa was shot and grievously wounded. He would never fully recover and eventually died in 1602 at the age of 41.

Side view of the Kabuto, showing rows of white, green and purple kebiki lacing

Helmet Armour (Tosei Gusoku)

The helmet

This helmet, or kabuto, is of a type known as hineno zunari kabuto, with a bowl comprising of a simple five plate construction made popular in the 16th century by the armourer Hineno Hironari. This places it in the period of Naomasa, although his personal armour is currently on display, along with several other similar examples, in Hikone Castle. Many subsequent members of the Ii clan adopted the same blood red pattern of armour, along with the tall, gold lacquered horns worn by Naomasa himself. This makes it somewhat difficult for us to conclusively say whom the helmet belonged too.

The helmet is made up of several elements. The hachi is the bowl of the helmet, in this case made up of five plates with a central, longitudinal plate being overlapped by a peaked brow plate. This peak is known as a mabezashi and was designed to protect the face from downward sword cuts. The small, back-turned lames at the side of the mabezashi are known as fukigayeshi and are again designed to deflect sword blows.

On older armours, the fukigayeshi are often much larger and more pronounced, often bearing a mon, or heraldic device. The shikoro, or neck guard on older armours is also much larger than the example here, often extending well over the shoulders. These elements hark back to the days when the samurai were typically horse-mounted warriors, using the bow as their principal weapon. The wide-brimmed shikoro would offer great protection from sword blows coming down from mounted enemies, towards the head and shoulders, while the fukigayeshi would help to deflect arrows from the face. As the military classes started to favour the sword and spear and developed a preference for fighting on foot, the large fukigayeshi and wide shikoro became more of a hindrance, potentially guiding an enemy blade in and even trapping it near the face rather than deflecting the blow. The diminutive fukigayeshi and closer fitting shikoro of later helmets were much more suited to infantry fighting.

The crest

The mask in full, showing the gold lacquered crest which sits on the front of the helmet

The restored crest, associated with the helmet, but probably a later addition (XXVIA.176)

The helmet crest, or maedate, which in this case is a pair of golden horns, served several purposes, such as identification on the battlefield and to create an intimidating visage. As Naomasa strode forward through the fog that morning at Sekigahara, he must have truly appeared to have been a devil.

Finally the face mask, or menpo, serves to further the terrifying image cultivated by the samurai, but also offered some protection to the face and served as an anchor point for the helmet itself. This type of menpo is known as a ressei men, because of its aggressive expression.

The kabuto is among many items on display in the Oriental Gallery at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.

Visit our Collections Online to see more of our collection.