21st Century Yoroi – Samurai armor for modern Japan
Source: Highlighting JAPAN – by Nayalan Moodley
Samurai are recognized around the world as iconic emblems of Japanese culture. Their modern image is striking and romantic: powerful, honorable warriors clad in magnificent armor, finely honed katana in hand. And while the katana may be the foremost symbol of the samurai, no less distinctive is their trademark armor, or yoroi.
Marutake Sangyo Co., Ltd., is Japan’s premier producer of realistic, historically accurate, useable samurai armor. Based in Satsumasendai City, Kagoshima Prefecture, the company was founded in 1958 by Shinobu Tanoue, an avid collector of samurai arms and armor. At the time the company made bamboo fishing rods, but as the fishing industry began to shift away from bamboo, Tanoue saw the potential in armor production and restoration. This led him to re-create Marutake Sangyo as a maker of traditional Japanese yoroi.
Following advice from a network of armor collectors and historical armor experts, the company spent years refining its techniques, eventually landing deals producing armor for television and films. The company now claims to manufacture 90 percent of the armor and props used in Japan’s televised historical dramas and movies, and has provided armor for Akira Kurosawa’s classics ‘Ran’ and ‘Kagemusha.’
With Shinobu Tanoue’s son, Kenichi, now at the helm of the company’s 52-person workforce, Marutake Sangyo continues to produce the finest quality armor for museums, individual collectors and major productions.
The company produces yoroi both for display and use, the latter being custom-made to fit each purchaser — and built to take a beating. Company Director Kanehiro Kobata recalls a festival where an armored rider was thrown from his horse and then kicked in the head and body. The shocked spectators feared the worst, but the rider simply stood up, remounted his horse and rode off. While his kabuto (helmet) bore the mark of a horseshoe, his life had been saved by his Marutake Sangyo armor.
As one might expect, authentic yoroi doesn’t come cheap. A full suit runs anywhere from about $6,000 to $30,000, with a premium paid for historically accurate reproductions of famous samurai leaders’ armor. However, the company has been able to shave away at the cost of custom production by bringing modern technology into the process. Individual plates and holes are mechanically pressed and drilled. Bending is done with pneumatic hammers before being refined by hand. Some traditional rivets are replaced with spot welds, and the ropes used to bind the suits together are machine woven, though each plate is still painstakingly sewn in place by hand. All aspects of manufacturing are done in-house, right down to the pressing of ornamental brass crests, ensuring customers get the best suit of armor for their investment.
Marutake Sangyo also contributes to the Satsumasendai community. The company sponsors an annual Yoroi Festival where 200 people don armor and parade through the city streets. There are sword battles and flamboyant depictions of samurai history, meticulously choreographed by Kobata, a former kendo practitioner.
Kobata is also the managing director of Sendai Sengoku Mura theme park and museum. Opened in 1990, the castle-like attraction was built to house Shinobu Tanoue’s private collection of arms, armor and military paraphernalia collected from the late 14th century to the late 19th century (Sengoku to Meiji Periods). The complex itself is a beautiful retreat back in time, and the collection is impressive enough to rival that of many museums. The site also houses a small workshop that repairs and restores original suits of armor.
Marutake Sangyo recently began marketing its armor internationally as well, and just as in Japan, it’s generating significant interest overseas. At a recent trade show in Milan, company representative Tetsuro Hayashi found that many people were excited about buying yoroi, and the company has received orders from clients in the Middle East as well. It’s currently looking for customers that have a strong interest in Japan such as museums and high-end restaurants.
Tanoue and Hayashi hope to establish yoroi as the epitome of ‘Cool Japan.’ In the process, they aim not only to drive sales of their armor but also help light a flame under the world’s passion for Japanese culture.
Satsuma Sendai Samurai Parade – Hanya Festival