Image from Stephen Turnbull’s Samurai: the Story of Japan’s Great Warriors.
What is Cambridge’s connection to the samurai warrior of ancient Japan? A reproduction of a samurai kabuto (helmet) was given to the city of Cambridge by its Japanese sister city, Tsukuba. Cambridge and Tsukuba have been sister cities since 1983. The Tsukuba kabuto is currently on display in the Sakey Room of the Cambridge Public Library. If you can’t stop by for a quick visit, read below for more on the significance of the kubuto’s design as well as the hairstyles that grew out of the samarai’s pratical need to protect his head.
For the samurai, the professional military cast of pre-modern Japan, the death of one’s enemy – although an expected and natural consequence of war – was suffused with tradition. Most notably was the victor’s ritual collection and inspection of heads. After battle, the diamyō or samurai general was presented with enemy heads on a spiked wooden board marked with identification only after the women of his court carefully washed the heads, combed the hair, and applied cosmetics to the face in a delicate ritual. As a result of this tradition, samurai became fastidious about the fashion of their kabuto (helmet) and the care of their hair.
Because of the samurai tradition of decapitation, hundreds of different styles of kabuto (helmet) and several different styles of shikoro, the neck guard hanging from the back and sides of the helmet, were developed for both aesthetic and practical reasons. As later styles of samurai armor became somber, the kabuto became more elaborate, decorated with kuwagata, huge wooden buffalo horns or antlers, in order to intimidate enemies on the battlefield. Made from iron and lacquered in red or gold, the kabuto both protected the samurai from decapitation and also made him stand out in combat. The final evolution of the kabuto came during the peaceful Edo period (1603-1868) when wars ceased – the samurai helmet served as decoration only.
Perfectly groomed hair became one of the most important aspects of the samurai’s appearance. The samurai shaved off the front part of his head, while drawing what hair remained into a motodori (pigtail) at the back. What had originally been created as a way to provide comfort while wearing the heavy iron kabuto (helmet), this coiffure turned into a fashion statement. Various hairstyles developed from chasen gami, a look that resembled the bamboo tea whisk used in the Japanese tea ceremony, to the mitsuori, hair gathered into a three-fold knot at the back of the head. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the powerful shogunate who ushered in the peaceful Edo period, spoke against samurai who did not properly shave, claiming that it “spoiled the look of a head when it was cut off.” Ieyasu praised his enemy Kimura Shigenari for his perfumed hair, which made his severed head a more attractive trophy when Ieyasu inspected it after the battle of Osaka in 1615.