Kent Archaeological Review extract

Japanese Helmet Found near St Mary Cray.
by John Parsons.

During the building of the present 'Dataform' offices in Sevenoaks Way, St Mary Cray near Orpington, the bulldozers disturbed a deposit of ancient armour, including two helmets, shields and chain-mail. Unfortunately, only one helmet survived and this was badly damaged by the bulldozer. I was informed of the 'find' and identified the battered object as a rare example of a Japanese helmet of the 16th century (circa 1530). The helmet was later examined by Michael Moad, Curator of Rochester Museum who wrote the following report on it.


The bowl (hachi) of this helmet is composed of 62 overlapping ridged plates rivetted together, with the rivetted heads being countersunk and filed flush with the plates on the outer surface of the bowl. High sided multi-plate helmets of this style are known as Koshozan-suji-bachi or "high victory mountain ridged bowl".

Tradition has it that the inventors of this particular style of helmet were Miochin Nobuiye and Miochin Yoshimichi, two of the "three later renowned artists" of the illustrious Miochin school. These armourers were working in the first half of the 16th Century and most modern authorities consider that Nobuiye was in fact, the probable founder of the Miochin school, thus refuting the claims of traditional genealogies which attempt to trace the family back to the 12th century.

Certainly, Nobuiye is the first master to sign helmets of this particular style and the St Mary Cray helmet may safely be considered to be the work of the Miochin school.

As has been previously stated, the helmet under discussion here is comp- osed of 62 overlapping ridged plates rivetted together. These plates are rivetted at their base to a brim plate (Koshimaki) to which was also attached the neck guard (Shikoro). This last would originally have been formed of several lames, joined together with silk lacing, but here only the upper lame, called "Hachi-tsuke-no-ita" now survives and this is lacking both "Fukigayeshi" (projections formed by turning back the forward edge of the upper lame, or lames, of the "Shikoro". This surviving portion of the neck guard is thickly lacquered and modelled in imitation of small scale "Kozane" construction. This type of imitation is termed "Kittsuke Kozane".

To the front of the Koshimaki is attached the peak "Mabezashi" and to this, in turn, is rivetted the "Oharaidate" (a tubular socket of rectangular section for holding the forecrest "Maidate mono". The plates forming the helmet bowl do not meet together at the top of the helmet but stop short, leaving a circular hole "Tehen". The vulnerable edge of this hole is protected by a fitting "Tehen Kanamono", composed of seven soft metal ornamental washers mounted on a central cube "Hobin" the end of which is split into six sections which would be bent over on the inside of the helmet bowl to secure the "Tehen Kanamono" in place. The very fine Tehen Kanamono present on this particular helmet is of "Kokonoye-za" or high multi-fold style, a fashion of somewhat later date than the date of manufacture of the helmet bowl itself.

However, it was a very common practice in Japan to pass old helmet bowls down from generation to generation to be remounted many times on various armours.

The Tehen serves no useful function whatsoever on the helmet under dis- cussion but is merely a traditional survival from a period covering the 10th to the mid 14th centuries. At this early phase in the development of armour, the helmet was not equipped with a helmet lining (Unkebari) fitted to the Koshimaki as would have been the case with the St Mary Cray helmet. The warrior at that time wore his hair dressed in a cue (Motodori) on the top of his head and before putting on his helmet he would don a soft fabric arming cap (Eboshi) and when the helmet was placed on his head the Motodori would protrude through the Tehen, thus allowing the helmet to sit more comfortably.

Another similar survival may be seen in the four protruding rivets "Hibiki-no-ana" arranged to the right and left of the front and back of the helmet bowl. These, again, serve no useful function in this helmet but are survivals from the 11th to the late 13th/early 14th centuries, at which time the helmet cord, which secures the helmet to the head, was not attached to the Koshimaki as would be the case with the helmet under discussion here, but passed out through the Hibiki-no-ana from the inside of the helmet with large knots then being tied in the ends of the cords to prevent them being drawn back through the holes, thus attaching the cords securely to the helmet.

In the St Mary Cray helmet, the Hibiki-no-ana would have been plugged with small loops of braid "Hasa", the four rivets, Shiten-no-byo, being placed so as to divert rainwater from the holes. A small hole may be observed pierced through towards the top of the back plate of the helmet. This was to provide for the attachment of a small gilded ring "Kasa-jirushi-no-kwan". To this ring could be attached a small streamer-like banner, the "Kasa-jirushi", which usually bore a family badge or "Mon". When not in use a small bow was attached to this ring to prevent it rattling against the surface of the helmet.

Helmets of Koshozan type, such as that under discussion, are very difficult to date purely on stylistic grounds, as this form of bowl was used unchanged from its inception in the earliest years of the 16th Century right through to the time that armour was discarded for active warfare in Japan in the mid 19th century. However, fortunately for students, the Japanese armourer very frequently signed, and sometimes also dated, his work and such is the case with this helmet. The helmet is chiselled with a date on the inside of the back plate, which may be transcribed and translated as 1st August, 1525.

The signature of the armourer appears on the inside of the front plate but, unfortunately, the front of the helmet has been severely damaged and a little over half of the front plate has been broken away, together with much of the inscription. That which remains is further obliterated by corrosion but may be rendered thus: "Hisa", which represents the final character only of the armourer's family and personal names. The characters preceding it are obliterated. "Saku" which translated means "Made this". Unfortunately, as may be seen, this inscription does not provide sufficient information to render the identification of the armourer possible. However, a number of interesting features about the construction of this helmet provide a few clues as to its origin.

That this helmet is certainly the work of the Miochin school has previously been stated. This famous school split, in its early years, into two sub-divisions based on the styles followed by the two masters, Nobuiye and Yoshimichi; the sub-divisions being termed the Nobu-ryu and the Yoshi-ryu respectively.

Curiously enough, this helmet bowl at first sight appears to have features common to both schools. The plates from which the helmet is formed are flat in section in the Nobu-ryu style, whereas the Yoshi-ryu favoured a slightly "S" shaped plate. The crest holder (Oharaidate) is of a type associated with the Nobu tradition, called "Hirame". These features would initially lead the student to suppose that this was a helmet produced by an armourer of the Nobu-ryu (thereby possibly enhancing its desirability in the eyes of some armour purists among the Samurai, or Warrior Class).

However, a closer inspection reveals some important inconsistencies in the construction of this helmet bowl. In a pure Nobu style bowl, the suji, or ridges, are filed off to a reduced height as they approach the top of the plates. Here, however, we find that the ridges are of a uniform height throughout their length in the Yoshi manner and there are signs, particularly where the Tehen Kanamono has protected the surface of the plates from corrosion, that the plates have been lacquered in such a manner as to give the impression that the height of the ridges is reduced towards the top of the helmet, the traces of lacquer remaining there being sufficiently thick as to be almost flush with the ridges. An examination of the inside of the bowl reveals that there are five rows of rivets in the plates instead of the usual six. Sakakibara Kozan in his great study of armour Chukokatchu Seisakuben published in 1800 states that Yoshi style helmet bowls are sometimes faked to look like Nobu work by cutting away the lower part of the plates and then resetting the original Koshimaki. This has the effect of lowering the relative positions of the Shiten-no-byo, this being a sign of the Nobu-ryu style. He further states that these fakes can be detected by the fact that only five rows of rivets are to be seen inside the helmet bowl, instead of six. "Hisa", the final character of the signature in this helmet, would certainly imply the work of an armourer of the Yoshi tradition as no armourers of the Nobu-ryu are known with this character as a final element of their nanori, or personal name.

However, several armourers of the Yoshi-ryu have names ending with this character. Therefore, it seems that there is every possibility that this helmet is the work of an armourer of the Yoshi-ryu branch of the Miochin school which has, at some time during its working life, been altered to the Nobu-ryu style.

As a considerable quantity of Japanese armour exists in both public and private collections in this country, parallels for this type of helmet are rather too numerous to mention. The finest Kentish collection, in which similar specimens may be seen are, undoubtedly, those at Maidstone Museum and the collection of Mr D E Bower on view at Chiddingstone Castle.

The helmet is, at present, being restored in order that it may be on permanent display at Data form at the request of the Director and staff. An expert from the Victoria and Albert Museum has also examined it and confirms the 16th century date.

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