Four suits of samurai armour presented to the British monarch as diplomatic gifts – including one dating to the 17th century – have gone on display together for the first time.
The collection forms part of a new exhibition, Japan: courts and culture, which is being shown at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace. The exhibition explores the relationship between the British and Japanese royal and imperial families over a period of 300 years.
The oldest of the suits to go on display, which arrived in England in 1613, was also the first diplomatic gift from Japan to Britain. It was sent to King James I by Sho¯gun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was ruler of Japan at the time, as part of an invitation to the British to expand their trading networks in the country.
The suit is noticeable for its pumpkin-shaped helmet, which includes a raised area at the rear to accommodate the samurai hairstyle. It retains its original blue and red silk, a rare survival due to the fragility of the material.
This silk was joined with small iron pieces to create a lightweight outfit that was popular with warriors due to its flexibility.
‘It makes it very light and quite springy, and very different from European armour, which relies on slightly larger, polished steel plates,’ explained Simon Metcalf, the Royal Armourer at Buckingham Palace.
‘Even though the James armour was a diplomatic gift, it was designed to be used and could be worn,’ Metcalf added. ‘It definitely comes from the tradition of armour for use in the field or in battle.’
One of the other suits is thought to have been given to the future King George V by Emperor Meiji during George’s visit to Japan as a teenager in 1881. The third suit, which contains a helmet dating to 1537, was given to Queen Victoria’s son Alfred in 1869. He was the first foreign royal of any nationality to visit Japan following the Meiji Restoration.
The exhibition, which runs until February next year, includes more than 35 military items, including mother-of-pearl spears sent to Victoria in 1860, and swords by master Japanese swordsmiths of the era. Other artefacts include decorated vases, rare pieces of porcelain, and traditional Japanese embroidered screens.