Beyond the Mask: In-Depth Analysis of Menpō and their Decorations

01 March 2024

Before entering the fascinating world of menpō, the masks of samurai armor, it is essential to understand their importance and function within the armor of Japanese warriors. The term "menpō" refers to the face protection used in samurai armor, made primarily of iron but occasionally also of leather (nerikawa). This protective element, introduced around the 14th century, has a double function: to protect the fighter's face and to allow proper attachment of the kabuto, the helmet, by means of hooks and pins, as well as to provide support for the throat protection, called tare or yodare-kake.

Now let us examine the three main types of menpō and their distinctive features:

  • Hanbō: This is the oldest form of menpō, essentially a chin guard that, in some cases, could extend to protect the cheekbones as well. It was the most practical model for use on the battlefield.
  • Menoshita-men: Introduced in the Momoyama period and widespread during the Edo period, this mask covers the lower half of the face starting from the area under the eyes, with the option, nearly always, of the nose can be detached.
  • Sōmen: This mask covers the samurai's entire face. Although it could be divided into two parts for partial use, it was primarily a decorative and ceremonial element.

The decorations of menpō are extremely varied and rich in symbolic meaning. Masks are often adorned with terrible sneers, grimaces, long mustaches made from horsehair and teeth, aiming to make the samurai's armor more intimidating. This decorative style, except for hanbō which rarely featured human expressions, was inspired by the theater tradition practiced by the great generals of the Sengoku Jidai, such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Among the most common types of decorations, we can identify:

  • Ressei: Characterized by violent expressions, thick mustaches, showing teeth and marked wrinkles. This type of menpō was developed in Nara and is predominant in armor of the Momoyama and Edo periods.
  • Ryubu: In contrast to Ressei, this expression is noble and serene, with no wrinkles and no mustache or teeth.
  • Okina: Depicting an elderly person with a long beard and mustache.
  • Tengu: Characterized by a large beak-like nose, inspired by the mythological creature of the same name. Not to be confused with karura, in reference to another similar-looking mythological creature, although in this case there is no mouth but a large opening under the beak. In contrast, masks with long human noses represent Sōjōbō, the king of the tengu.

In conclusion, menpō were not just simple face protectors, but true works of art that reflected Japanese culture, tradition, and mythology, as well as playing a key role in the psychology of warfare, intimidating enemies with their menacing and imposing presence.


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