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Nishioka Fumio: An Armorer Bringing National Treasures Back to Life


Traditional Japanese armor combines a diverse set of different crafts and skills, including lacquer, leather, and textile work. Professional armor restorer Nishioka Fumio is one of the few people in Japan with all these skills at his command. We spoke to him about his work restoring some of the masterpieces of Japanese armor to their former glory.

Nishioka Fumio

Armorer. Born in Imari, Saga Prefecture, in 1953. After working as a graphic designer, began his apprenticeship as an armorer at the age of 25 under Morita Asajirō. Vice president of the Association for the Research and Preservation of Japanese Helmets and Armor and a member of the Japan Society for the Preservation of Cultural Property. Has carried out repairs and made replicas of countless pieces of armor, including several national treasures.

Over its long history, Japanese armor came to draw on a wide variety of cutting-edge techniques and crafts, being created in a joint effort by everyone from smiths and other metalworkers to specialists in repoussé and metal chasing, lacquer, leather, woodwork, dyeing, and textiles. In the past, each of these skills was a specialist trade in its own right, the preserve of highly trained artisans. Today, professional armorers (katchūshi) must undertake almost all this work on their own. It is said that it takes more than a decade just to acquire the basic skills. Becoming an armorer is an expensive undertaking that requires a major commitment of dedication and time. Today, as a result, only a handful of professional armorers remain.

Scientific Analysis for Perfect Replicas

Nishioka Fujio runs the Nishioka Armor Workshop, which undertakes contract work for the repair and restoration of armor and helmets. He is one of Japan’s leading experts in the field of traditional armor. In his quest to ensure that even the smallest details of his work look just right, Nishioka sometimes hires specialists at universities and other research institutions to carry out scientific analyses of original pieces of armor, allowing him to put empirical evidence to work in restoring an antique piece to its original condition or creating replicas that match the appearance of the originals exactly.

“Our mission is to make replicas that precisely match the originals, made as they would have been hundreds of years ago. We use the same materials and the same techniques, based on surviving records. In that sense, we are not creative artists—our work should not reflect our individual personalities or preferences. Our effort and attention are dedicated to divining the history hidden inside the original armor, and then doing everything we can to try to bring it back to life in the modern age.”

Nishioka in his workshop, restoring a piece of armor.

This process has led to some surprising discoveries. In 2015, for example, Nishioka was hired by a museum inside Saga Castle to produce a replica of a piece of armor then under repair, believed to have belonged to Nabeshima Katsushige (1580–1657), the first lord of the Saga domain. The museum’s curators had always assumed that the armor was coated with seishitsu, a green color made by mixing indigo and orpiment into the lacquer. But as he worked on the armor, Nishioka came to have his doubts about the accuracy of this tradition.

“I finished the armor and painted it with seishitsu according to the traditional belief about how it would have been colored. But somehow it didn’t feel right and I couldn’t give it quite the same appearance as the original. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, so I asked Kitano Nobuhiko at the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties to run scientific tests on the original. We discovered that the armor hadn’t been decorated with seishitsu at all. In fact, the color came from a kind of pigment very similar to that used in European oil paintings.”

The second half of the sixteenth century was a period when Japan was actively involved in international trade; this discovery makes it likely that painting supplies and techniques imported from Europe were already being used in Japan at the time. Nishioka promptly stripped the seishitsu from the armor and replaced it with paint, successfully recreating the look and feel of the original.

Applying gold leaf with a bamboo brush. In the “bling” years of the late sixteenth century, many pieces of armor were completely covered in gold leaf.

Applying a new coat of lacquer.

A Muromachi-period breastplate from the second half of the sixteenth century under restoration. The strips of iron and leather coated with gold leaf are known as sane-ita. The restorer will remove the old threads linking the pieces together and replace them with new ones.

The Evolution of Armor

The appearance of Japanese armor changed considerably over the centuries. The distinctively Japanese style of armor known as ōyoroi first came into existence in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, during the late Heian period. It was designed to be worn by high-ranking archers on horseback. The armor was heavy, with substantial shoulder guards (ōsode) and helmets attached. Lower-ranking foot soldiers wore lighter cuirasses known as dōmaru that enclosed their torso, or haramaki, which protected the belly and were left open at the back. As time went on, higher-ranking samurai also began to use the lighter dōmaru and haramaki, which allowed greater freedom of movement, and attached helmets and shoulder guards for greater protection.

A new style of armor known as “contemporary style armor” (tōsei gusoku) arrived in the Sengoku period of widespread civil wars that lasted through much of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This consisted of iron and leather plates that covered nearly the entire body, including protection for the arms (kote) and the legs from the knees to the ankles (suneate). This new armor evolved from the need for better protection following the arrival of firearms. This remained the most important style of Japanese armor for the remainder of its history.

A kusazuri was used to protect the lower body and upper thigh. The iron parts are coated with lacquer. Armor like this would have been used by high-ranking samurai in the late sixteenth century.

“Elite warriors of the Sengoku period used armor that incorporated eye-catching elements to make themselves stand out on the battlefield. A good example would be the armor known as Niō-dō, which Toyotomi Hideyoshi is believed to have sent to the king of Spain. This incorporates decorations that realistically mimic parts of the human body, such as the nipples and ribs. These elements were taken to represent the body of Niō, a guardian deity often found at the entrance to Buddhist temples. The idea would have been that by wearing this armor the warrior could harness the power of Niō and carry his protection with him into battle.” The magnificent appearance of these elite warriors on the battlefield would also have helped to inspire their troops and boost morale.

Achieving the Perfect Balance

Nishioka says the most important thing in his work is attention to detail and achieving a completely rounded and authentic finish. The key to this is balance: achieving the perfect equilibrium and harmony to bring out the beauty of the armor.

“An extremely important part of this is a process called odoshi. This involves using threads to bind and secure the individual iron and leather plates known as kozane-ita. These can be adjusted very precisely by threads at the top and bottom of each plate. We make small adjustments to these threads to make sure that everything holds together just right. This final finishing touch is where the individual sense of the armorer can really make a difference.”

A mogami haramaki from the second half of the sixteenth century. The momonari kabuto helmet next to it dates from the same period and shows European influence in its design.

The kumi-himo threads and sashes that are used to bind the armor plates are made by Nishioka’s wife, Chizuru. She uses traditional Japanese techniques to create perfect replicas. The threads are dyed and combined in many different ways to bring out their subtle colors, which form an important part of the ensemble.

Replica kumi-himo sashes made with traditional Japanese techniques.

“Japanese armor was not only a practical tool for military self-defense. Its decorative and aesthetic properties were always important too,” says Nishioka. “Until around the first half of the fourteenth century, purple and other noble colors were often used, giving an elegant look to the armor that rivals the culture of the court nobility of the times. The idea of shogyō mujō, a Buddhist concept that teaches that the world is constantly changing and impermanent, was an important part of the philosophy and esthetics of those times. It’s a way of thinking about the world that is quite far removed from our modern sensibilities. But when you see armor like this at close quarters, it seems to come back to life before your eyes.”

(Originally published in Japanese on November 23, 2016. Compiled by Katō Kyōko from an interview with Nishioka Fumio. Photographs by Katō Takemi.)

art crafts history Samurai