Collecting guide: Japanese Menpo, masks for the samurai

17 June 2019

Before buying a menpo, or japanese samurai mask, it is probably better to know some basic concepts. With the term "menpo" we generally indicate the face protection of the japanese samurai armor. A menpo is generally made of iron, but it is not uncommon to find menpo made in nerikawa, a treated leather which remains solid and light in weight. This face protection for the samurai armor was introduced to the samurai equipment during the 14th century.

A menpo looks actually like a real mask; it has three main functions: it protected the face, it allowed to fix the kabuto and it held a protection for the throat called tare or yodare-kake. Under the chin there are often one or more draining holes for the sweat.

The three main tipologies of menpo differ from the portion of face they cover:

  • Hanbō. This is basically a chin-guard which on some occasion coud reach the cheeks. It is the oldest menpo model and probably the only one that samurai really used in battles.
  • Menoshita-men. Born during the Momoyama period on the great samurai generals' suits of armor, this menpo became popular during the Edo period. It covers the lower part of the face under the eyes, including the nose, which is generally detatchable.
  • Sōmen. This is a mask that cover the whole face of the samurai. It could be divided in two or three parts, in order to be partially worn, but it was used for parades and social occasions.

Samurai mask are today famous for their fierce expressions and their moustaches. the goal was not only to protect the warrior but also to impress those who were looking at the samurai. Excluding the hanbo, which would not normally be shaped with human expressions, menpo were often designed after the masks of the Japanese No theatre, very much popular among daimyo and samurai during the sengoku jidai. Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself was a valid actor who used to perform frequently for his samurai troops. Shapes and designs are hence of many kinds. The most popular being the foloowing:

  • Ressei: this is the most common menpo shape, with exposed teeth, wrinkels and moustaches. This kind of menpo was invented in Nara and it is  basically the only one used during the Momoyama period. 
  • Ryubu. In this case the expression of the menpo is noble and relaxed, without teeth, wrinkels  or moustaches.
  • Okina. With beard and long moustaches, this menpo has the characters of an old person.
  • Tengu. This samurai mask has the beak of the mythological creature with a bird's head. It is often called also karura men, as this creature from the Buddhist tradition has also a similar face. We do acually distinguish the latter from the first one, as the karura men does not show a separate mouth under the nose, as the tengu men does. Menpo with a long human nose represent Sōjōbō, the king of tengu, and they are also called" tengu men".

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